Thursday, July 25, 2024

USWNT boss Emma Hayes explains rule change for alternates at Olympics and preaches calm ahead of tournament

NEW YORK — Soccer teams competing at the Olympics will now have more flexibility to rely on their alternates, who will now be made temporarily available in a rule change instituted by the tournament organizers.

New U.S. women’s national team head coach Emma Hayes confirmed the update at a pre-Olympics press conference at Nike’s House of Innovation in New York, hours after her France counterpart Herve Renard did the same.

“The reality with alternates is that if there is a temporary injury to a player on the roster, within the 18, that as long as we give six hours’ notice, we’re able to make a temporary change and we can then change that for a following game,” Hayes said.

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The previous rule for the four alternates named to a roster was that they were only able to compete in the Olympics should someone in the main squad pick up an injury that will keep them out of the remainder of the tournament. It is not the first rule change for alternates in recent years, who were actually able to compete as full members of an Olympic team the pandemic-delayed Games in Tokyo.

Hayes noted that the change, while important, does not necessarily change how she will prepare her squad in the weeks before their opening match against Zambia on July 25.

“I view [it as] the fact that there’s 22 players going to the Olympics that we are to prepare every player to be able to perform, if required,” she said. “From my perspective, nothing changes. Maybe it gives us a bit more flexibility but there’s 22 players.”

Coaches have historically complained about the roster size at the Olympics, since it is a dramatic drop form the number of players that compete at a World Cup. Roster sizes are usually capped at 23 for the FIFA-sanctioned tournament, though the men’s 2022 World Cup in Qatar allowed coaches to select 26 players as part of a pandemic-related policy.

The Olympics are essentially a more frantic version of the World Cup, not only because of the truncated rosters. There are 12 teams in the women’s competition, down from the 32 that competed at last year’s Women’s World Cup, while there are 16 on the men’s side, far fewer than the 48 that will take part in the 2026 World Cup. Teams that reach the gold and bronze medal matches will play six matches over the course of 17 days, while teams who reach a World Cup final do so with their seventh game in roughly a month.

“The tournament is crazier,” U.S. forward Crystal Dunn, who will play at her third Olympics this summer, said. “There’s back-to-back games, small roster. They are expecting us to play, I think, six games in a shorter amount of time. It’s crazy, it’s wild but you need everybody.”

Adding to the frenzy for the U.S. women’s team is that new head coach Hayes only coached her first two games a month ago and will have just two more to prepare before jetting off to Paris. The short ramp is far from ideal for a team that eyes its first gold medal since 2012, especially with much on the line after making their earliest-ever exit from the World Cup last year. Yet, the team exudes a sense of calm and confidence that harkens back to the USWNT of old.

“We’ve dealt with it really well,” Hayes said about the quick preparations before the Olympics. “We had the camp opportunity at the back end of May, which was really helpful and the staff off the pitch have been working together to create a program from now throughout the Olympics so I feel we’re very prepared to go into this tournament regardless of the short lead-in. … A lot of that work has been over the last year, reflecting from the World Cup and then putting the roster together bit by bit over the course of the year so much of that has been done.”

U.S. captain Lindsey Horan said the team was eager to put the World Cup behind them as soon as the disappointing trip to Australia and New Zealand was over. Her optimism heading into the Olympics also stems from the team’s potential after assistant coach Twila Kilgore oversaw a squad overhaul that led several young players to gain a foothold in the team.

“I think after the World Cup, we really regrouped and we’ve been working extremely hard over this past year, especially these last few months and with Emma coming in and everything that she’s done and contributed, I think it’s a very exciting time,” Horan said. “You look at the young players coming in, the leaders on this team, the big mesh of what we have, I think what you’re going to see and what’s in store for us is incredible. We want a gold medal at the end of the day and that’s what we’re striving to do.”

Despite the high-stakes task of returning to the top amidst an unprecedented amount of competitiveness in the women’s game, the team managed to find the one thing they said they were missing at the World Cup — joy.

“Obviously we stepped out of the World Cup not feeling too amazing about our performance but I think we knew, at the end of the day, we had an incredible opportunity to regroup and get back to it,” Dunn said. “I think the coaching staff in place with Twila did a really good job of just keeping us focused but also letting us have a little bit of fun with it. At the end of the day, we’re here to win soccer games but we need to have fun doing it and that means creating that competitive environment that’s going to bring out the best out of us and not just make us so uptight about making mistakes and being afraid of failure.”

Dunn, who worked with Hayes at Chelsea from 2017 to 2018, said the new head coach was the perfect fit to maintain that balance of competition and joy.

“When I first heard the whispers that she was in the running to get this job, I remember reaching out and just being like, ‘You would be so perfect,’ just because she really cares about the player,” Dunn said. “It’s not all about winning even though that is the definition of Emma, just knowing and finding ways to win. She’s so competitive and she really gets the best out of players and I think that is exactly what this team needs, that investment in the individual player so you know how to best motivate them and so she’s been great. If anyone can pull off coming in at the 12th hour and getting us ready for an Olympics, it’s definitely Emma.”

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