Chelsea manager Emma Hayes points to the club crest on her jacket after winning the Barclays Women's Super League and her final match in charge of the club at Old Trafford, Manchester. [1296x729]
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes points to the club crest on her jacket after winning the Barclays Women's Super League and her final match in charge of the club at Old Trafford, Manchester. [1296x729] (Credit: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

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LONDON -- In April 2023, after her side had lost 2-1 on aggregate to Barcelona in the UEFA Women's Champions League semifinals, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes sat in her postmatch news conference at Camp Nou and cried. The journalists gathered in the room shared a single thought: Is she done?

"If there was a little bit longer in the game, I think we would have gone on and won it," Hayes said. "We grew into the game, we got more aggressive, and we created some good chances. It wasn't quite enough, and I'm stood here now just absolutely gutted to be totally honest."

Having spent a period of the 2022-23 season away from her day-to-day duties following a hysterectomy, Hayes admitted she was mentally and physically exhausted, but that she had to keep pushing with several games of the Women's Super League (WSL) left. And push she did; seven wins from the last seven games was enough to seal the title by two points from Man United, while also grinding out a 1-0 win over them in the FA Cup final -- a win she dubbed "a victory for grind" -- to seal the double.

But after winning the WSL for a fourth-consecutive time, Hayes' demeanor suggested something was amiss -- most notably in how she joked she would celebrate by sitting on a park bench drinking gin.

"I feel relieved it's over for lots of reasons," Hayes said. "I think it's a victory for the team because my backroom staff have carried me in so many different ways this year ... I just feel like I'm surviving, like I'm keeping my head above water while everybody is chasing. I've got 1,000 tasks; 1,000 interactions in a week. I'm just surviving. And guess what? I survived this week."

It was clear that Hayes was tired. Though many thought she might not stay on for the season, she took to the sidelines for 2023-24, but some shock news was to come in November when she announced that she would be taking over the biggest job in women's football: replacing Vlatko Andonovski as manager of four-time world champions, the United States, on a reported salary of around $2 million to make her the highest-paid women's football coach ever.

Sources told ESPN that Chelsea's players were shocked and surprised at the announcement; they only found out minutes before the news broke, in the changing room at Bescot Stadium after defeating Aston Villa 6-0. But it made sense.

A source said that Hayes was in brief talks with League Two men's side Crawley Town in 2022 -- though wanted to take charge of a team higher up the pyramid -- but with less games, player interactions and more time for family, a job with a national team offered a better balance. It was also the chance to realise a childhood dream by taking on the challenge of the USWNT.

However, as she had announced her exit so early, the spotlight was on Chelsea more than ever as they attempted to give her the perfect send-off after 12 glorious years in charge by winning a quadruple of trophies.

This is what USWNT fans can learn from Hayes' last season at Chelsea as she prepares for her U.S. debut game on June 1.

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How she deals with adversity

Hayes has openly spoken about the struggles of battling Endometriosis, pregnancy, menopause and trying to be a parent to her six-year-old son, Harry, alongside the stresses of the job. Her dad, Sid, passed away in September at the age of 82 after a battle with lung cancer, leaving a big hole in her life. Despite this, she has rarely taken a break and kept pushing to deliver the best possible for the club.

The Blues made a slow start to their WSL title defence, struggling against Tottenham Hotspur in the opening game, then only snatching a 1-1 draw against 10-women Manchester City thanks to a 96th-minute goal from Guro Reiten the week after, before losing 4-1 to Arsenal in November.

Hayes has exceptionally high standards, demanding the best from her players and guiding them to excel. She is direct and tells her squad what they need to improve without sparing feelings -- this much was clear in DAZN's "One Team, One Dream" documentary -- yet she is also her players' biggest cheerleader and tries to forge a special bond with them. One source told ESPN that Hayes' emotional intelligence is what allows her to get the best out of players, while Hayes has alluded to this herself, saying that she is always on-call to her players non-stop, revealing that she relates to "mavericks" like Lauren James and even picked up the phone to talk to her at 11 p.m. once.

Hayes' personality sold Chelsea to her players and the manager -- whose father was a salesman and taught her all he knew -- once wrote in The Coaches' Voice: "A lot of those jobs involved learning how to sell something, and that's a big part of the job of a coach. You have to get players to buy into what you're trying to do."

The chastening defeat to Arsenal was followed up by a shock 0-0 draw against Swedish minnows BK Hacken in the UWCL group stage, so Hayes had a lot of work to do in this regard. But a 10-game win streak in all competitions got things back on track.

How she adapts to different situations

In previous seasons, Hayes enjoyed a lot of control over every aspect of Chelsea, including scouting. But as the women's game grew, so did her responsibilities, and she took a step back from the process of acquiring new players.

Navigating an injury crisis was arguably the toughest on-pitch issue that Hayes has had to face this season. In December, her defensive lynchpin and captain Millie Bright was ruled out for six months with a knee injury. Then, in February, her main attacking threat, prolific goal scorer Sam Kerr, was ruled out for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. U.S. youngster and summer signing Mia Fishel then fell victim to the same injury a month later.

With new signings needed in January, the club signed defender Nathalie Björn from Everton before they spent a then-world-record fee of €500,000 to land striker Mayra Ramírez from Levante. Although Ramirez's acquisition arguably came too late and was something of a rushed move, it was in midfield where Chelsea struggled to fill the gaps most, having lost Denmark international Pernille Harder to Bayern Munich last summer, though these deficits brought out the best in Hayes, who her tactical nous in getting the best out of her side.

Youngsters like Aggie Beever-Jones and Maika Hamano were given chances to step up as Ramirez and Bjorn, who were themselves signed as replacements for injured players, faced injuries of their own. Hayes has brought four teenagers to the club over the past two seasons and turned to her younger players more to lay the foundations for the future.

She played star forward James out of position as a striker and rely heavily on the versatility of Sjoeke Nüsken, Fran Kirby and Niamh Charles (who arrived as a winger before dropping to full-back), which worked wonders. Bright, who was signed as a defensive midfielder in 2014 before converting to centre-back, also returned from injury in time for the final few games of the season, bolstering both the defensive nous and leadership within the squad.

Hayes' work with her three first-choice goalkeepers is also indicative of her management skills. In the summer, she brought in Hannah Hampton from Aston Villa to compete with Zecira Musovic and Ann-Katrin Berger, sources said she openly pointed out areas that Hampton needed to improve before she would start for Chelsea. Hampton won a start in December and continued as No. 1 in a string of league games, but Hayes again showed her ruthlessness by replacing her for the final three WSL matches with Musovic because of her ability to perform under pressure. Hayes then stated in her final postmatch news conference, after the 6-0 win over United that won them the title, that she picked a team of leaders to get them over the line.

In previous seasons, Hayes was commended for managing her players' workload and never allowing one to start every league game, which is a rarity in the current football climate. This time it would have been impossible and, due to a number of factors, none of Hayes' starting XIs were the same as she was forced to rotate her squad more than ever. A source described her as a "tactical chameleon" who has the ability to change her plans at short notice but still execute them effectively.

With the USWNT facing a plethora of injuries, Hayes' ability to navigate absences, encourage versatility, and manage her squad to ensure high standards every single game will be vital as the Olympics looms closer.

How she manages the media

Hayes has never been afraid to speak her mind, deal with controversy, advocate for players, touch on taboo subjects, or pioneer change by being a spokesperson. But this season it took its toll as Hayes' relationship with the media became strained and she became far more combative and less willing to engage.

Hayes made some questionable remarks, condemning player-player relationships while rightly criticising player-manager relationships. But Chelsea defender Jess Carter, who is in a relationship with former teammate Ann-Katrin Berger, took to X liking tweets that called out Hayes for making such comments. A source told ESPN that her words had a negative impact with players from her own club and other WSL teams. Former Chelsea captain Magdalena Erikson also said she was shocked by the situation but, rather than accepting she had made a mistake, Hayes blamed the media.

A few weeks later, Hayes and Arsenal boss Jonas Eidevall engaged in an altercation on the touchline with the Chelsea boss shoving her opponent. After the fact, Hayes slammed the Swede and accused him of "male aggression." She was heavily denounced for the comment but, rather than apologising for her remarks, Hayes doubled down and bizarrely recited a section of the 1916 poem "Choose Something Like A Star" ["So when at times the mob is swayed, to carry praise or blame too far, we may choose something like a star, to stay our minds on and be staid."] in an attempt to deflect attention, which again garnered negative attention.

Being away from the day-to-day of club football, with less media responsibilities for the USWNT, may give her more time to craft her communication skills. Hayes also deleted her social media accounts in May, having spoken to Liverpool men's manager Jurgen Klopp for advice, and stated that "the volume of abuse you have to tolerate is unacceptable."

Because of her profile, Hayes has been the spokesperson for women's football in England, meaning everything she says is used and anything she does attracts far more attention than her counterparts. Sources told ESPN that British newspapers are far more receptive to her comments than those of other WSL managers. She will find the American media to be a little different -- certainly in tone, access demands, and adhering to its own set of rules -- but the media spotlight could shine on her brighter than ever. This season, she could not hide in the shadows when things began to fall apart at Chelsea and there will be no respite with the USWNT either.

How she handles pressure

Hayes won 16 trophies at Chelsea, including seven WSL titles and five FA Cups, establishing herself as one of the world's top coaches. Her accolades include FIFA Best Football Coach (2021) and six WSL Manager of the Season awards. She was honored with an MBE in 2016 and an OBE (the second highest honor from the British Government) in 2022 for her impact on the women's game.

But this season was the first time in 12 years we saw her crack. It would be wrong to say she crumbled under the pressure, but she cracked a bit with so much riding on it. After losing the Conti Cup final 1-0 to Arsenal on March 31, Hayes' Chelsea were knocked out in the FA Cup semifinals by United in the following game and, a few weeks later, ended Barcelona's five-season unbeaten run at home before suffering a crushing 2-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge to bow out of the UEFA Women's Champions League at the semifinal stage as well.

With three of a possible four trophies disappearing in the space of a month, the WSL looked like it might end up in different hands when a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool on May 1 -- thanks to conceding three goals from set pieces, something they have rarely done -- saw Manchester City take command of the title race with three games left.

Hayes even conceded the league -- saying "the title is done" after the defeat at Prenton Park -- and though it was likely a way to take the pressure off her players, she firmly believed her fairytale would have an unhappy ending, without a trophy for the first time since 2018. Yet, City then dropped points to Arsenal and an emphatic 8-0 victory over Bristol City got Chelsea back on track. "Let me be clear," she said afterwards. "It's not f---ing over. There's no time for sentimentality. All work drinks are cancelled. There's a title to be won. This group of players taught me something so special this week, that you never ever give up."

It is a mark of why Chelsea are champions; if you give them a second chance, they will take it and punish you. After a win against a tired Tottenham team in their game in hand put them level on points with City ahead of the final matchday, and the scene was set for an emphatic 6-0 victory to seal a fifth-consecutive title at Old Trafford. A run of 15 goals with none in reply saw out Hayes' final three games and showed how she reacts when the chips are down.

"Anyone that doubted that Emma would get the job done is foolish because she's a mentality monster ... she's been there, she's done it," Aston Villa manager Carla Ward said. "What she's done for the women's game can't be understated; what she's done for me is something I'll never forget. Obviously, she's helped me no end, through good times and bad times. And I've had some tough times this year, and she's been there through every step of it; the women's game is a far worse game without her, but she's certainly put it in a place where the next generation can pick it up and run with it."

Hayes' final season was anything but easy. She has had to overcome a number of issues and sources told ESPN that the club have been laying foundations for her likely successor, Lyon's Sonia Bompastor, with a view to the future. The turbulence, however, will not define Hayes. If her last season taught USWNT fans anything, it's that they are gaining a manager who is fully committed.

Four days after her WSL title success, she will fly out to America on Wednesday to begin her duties with the national team. Diving headfirst into preparations for the Olympics in July, Hayes may be tired but says she doesn't need a break. Serial winners don't tend to take much time off.