Chelsea and incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes fall short of their biggest European ambition

Emma Hayes’ transformational 12-year reign at Chelsea culminated Saturday at a sold-out Stamford Bridge. It began, once upon a time, with no full-time staff and little funding, at tiny Wheatsheaf Park, on waterlogged pitches, far from spotlights. Years of brilliant, dogged work led Chelsea to the verge of European soccer’s biggest stage, a Women’s Champions League semifinal against the queens of the sport, Barcelona.

But Hayes’ reign will end next month without the prize that she had chased and craved more than any other.

Chelsea, valiant but overmatched and unlucky, lost to Barcelona, 2-0 on a wet West London night and 2-1 on aggregate.

And so Hayes, who has agreed to take charge of the U.S. women’s national team at season’s end, will arrive in the States next month, a week earlier than she hoped, without one elusive piece of hardware.

In the first leg last weekend, she and Chelsea had bamboozled Barcelona. They delivered a rare blow, a first Barcelona home defeat in more than five years. They were the first team to hold Barcelona scoreless since April 2022. They’d played with unwavering focus, and executed a masterful Hayes gameplan.

So they took a 1-0 lead back to England. They were greeted Saturday night by 39,398 buzzing fans, a product of their first-leg win but also years of tireless effort. This was the first time that Chelsea had sold out its main stadium for women’s game. This, in Hayes’ final season, felt like a moment — their moment.

They had lost 4-0 to Barcelona in their only Champions League final appearance back in 2021. They had lost in last year’s semifinals by a much narrower margin, 2-1. They were rising toward a fairytale finish, toward a coronation that Hayes deserved, toward the one available trophy Hayes hasn’t won.

But it was not to be.

Barcelona, the defending European champion, was too good.

And the soccer gods were too unkind.

Aitana Bonmatí, the world’s best player, brought Barcelona level on aggregate in the 25th minute.

Chelsea twice struck the post, but couldn’t answer.

The game then swung in the second half on a few dubious refereeing decisions. Kadeisha Buchanan was sent off for a questionable second yellow card. Some 15 minutes later, Bonmatí tumbled in the box, her legs squeezed by two Chelsea defenders — and referee Iuliana Demetrescu pointed to the penalty spot.

Fridolina Rolfö converted to give Barcelona a lead that held firm for the remaining 20 minutes.

Hayes, at the final whistle, looked around in frustration.

She will coach four more games at Chelsea, all in the Women’s Super League. The Blues trail Manchester City at the top of the table by three points, but have a game in hand. They have won six of the past seven WSL titles, and each of the last four. They very well could win another one.

But the Champions League was the next step, the new frontier, and a reason Hayes wanted to see out the 2023-24 season at Chelsea, even after agreeing to a record-breaking deal with U.S. Soccer in November.

It was, in a way, her last hurrah, and it ended in disappointment.

It did, though, come with one positive side effect, from an American perspective. Had Chelsea reached the Champions League final, on May 25, Hayes would have departed the following day and jumped right into her first camp as USWNT coach.

Now, she will have a full week to prepare after her May 18 Chelsea finale, and before U.S. players report to Hayes’ first training camp on May 27 in Colorado.

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