For Emma Hayes, there was no relief by the end of her inaugural camp as the new U.S. women’s national team head coach. But that’s not what she was looking for anyway.

The U.S. convincingly beat South Korea twice in four days, giving glimpses into what Hayes’ new-look squad could be in the future. The results were steps in the right direction, but as Hayes repeated time and again, there’s more work to do. And the Paris Olympics begin next month.

“When I think of relief, I remember what it’s like to win a title,” said Hayes, who has won plenty. “You get to the end and you think, ‘That’s relief.’

“I feel something very different. I feel like I really can have a big influence on this group. In turn, they’re going to have a big influence on me. And I told them that; I haven’t stopped smiling.”

The last six months have been a unique transition period for the USWNT and for Hayes. Now, at last, the two parties are one and the same.

During training camp, Hayes and her coaching staff stuffed everything they possibly could into the players. She overloaded them with information and methodology, noting there would be some “tired brains.” She introduced her style, strategy and vision, and drilled down on the importance of details, trust and process. She held individual meetings with players to get to know them on a personal level — everything from where they were from to how many siblings they had and more.

She did all of these things while being her outwardly confident and jovial self, projecting as the fearless leader needed to restore winning ways to the four-time World Cup champions.

“She definitely brings some lightheartedness into situations when necessary, but she’s someone who is really excited and adamant about getting her point across,” Alex Morgan said of her first impressions of Hayes. “She’s demanding of respect, but I think that it’s mutual. She came into this environment and respects every player regardless of the journey [they’ve had] to get to this team and how many caps each player has. She’s really big on building trust and getting feedback from players as well in meetings.

“She’s a coach that I think is at the perfect place in this program.”

Players absorbed everything like sponges, and by the end of camp were using the same language as Hayes to explain what they had learned.

Examples of this came on goals that were scored in both wins over South Korea. In the first match, center back Tierna Davidson scored two goals off headers from corner kicks. In the second, 16-year-old midfielder Lily Yohannes was in the right place at the right time to finish off a cross from Trinity Rodman. Both players said their goals were direct results of what Hayes and her staff had been layering in all week.

South Korea was a formidable tuneup opponent as the Americans prepare to face Zambia, Germany and Australia in the Olympics group stage. But this camp wasn’t as much about the competition as it was about time spent together and getting on the same page.

“I think whenever you’re in a transition period, when you’re bringing in new staff, there’s a lot of ‘new,'” Crystal Dunn said. “You have to almost start from the very beginning, the foundation. But that doesn’t mean we’re reinventing the wheel or we’re speaking a different language. It’s going into so much detail that you’re like, ‘Cool, this is a lot of detail, but this is meaningful information that she touched on.’ Camps down the road, we won’t have to go back to the beginning.”

Hayes compared her role here as that of a “heart surgeon in the middle of emergency surgery.” Not because there was anything “drastically wrong” with the USWNT, but because it was difficult to teach her concepts and do the surgery with such a limited amount of time before the next major tournament.

If the goal of this camp was laying the groundwork and teaching as much as possible, Hayes said her next objective is about “bringing everybody up to that level where everybody can do the surgery.”

Hayes was officially hired back in November, but under the unique condition that she would complete her 12th and final season with Chelsea. She said she envisioned what this moment would be like over the last six months, but once she was physically with the team, a few things surprised her.

For one, there was a better tactical understanding than she anticipated and she was pleased with how quickly the team could grasp information. She called the players “exceptionally bright” and “cerebral” and said they “can articulate concepts and ideas in a way that really challenges me,” which she enjoys. She believes the team is “bold enough, brave enough to want whatever it takes to improve,” and that they have moved on from the 2023 World Cup.

More than anything, it seemed Hayes was particularly touched by how caring and embracing the environment is. She said she got teary-eyed listening to players talk about the history of the program and why it’s important to them. From the outside, she always thought the USWNT was special — after all, this was her dream job. Now on the inside, she can see firsthand why.

And it was extra apparent to Hayes when Yohannes scored her first goal in her first cap to clinch a 3-0 victory for the USWNT last week. The entire team — including the bench — enveloped the youngster in a joyful celebration.

“I think the team has really bought into what it’s going to take for us to progress,” Hayes said. “It’s an adaptable team, a resilient team, a flexible team — these are their words, not mine. I get excited by growth, and I’m excited for our development together.”

Hayes’ first assignment is a very public and high stakes one. She relishes the opportunity to coach in an Olympics and understands the short runway she has to close gaps that were on display at the World Cup. The Americans were shockingly eliminated in the round of 16 following a dramatic penalty shootout with Sweden. While some inside U.S. Soccer would say that change had been bubbling for some time, the historically early exit was the catalyst to where the team finds itself now.

But players believe they are in a better place and the vibes are stronger than they were last summer.

“I think we made some amazing strides in this camp,” Rose Lavelle said. “I think the coaching staff has helped us grow and learn so much, and I think this group is very hungry and thirsty for knowledge, so it’s been good.”

In the coming weeks, Hayes will determine her 18-player roster for the Olympics. It will be a tough task because “there is an unbelievable talent pool in this country,” Hayes said. For those who do not make the cut, all it means is that the roster was too small (by comparison, 23 players are selected for a World Cup). Younger players especially can take solace in the fact that Hayes is building something greater beyond whatever happens in Paris this summer, and they will be involved in that. 

Her charge is to bring the USWNT back to the top of the soccer pedestal. Or as Jaedyn Shaw recently put it: “It’s go time.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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