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How Brighton’s U.S. coach is developing their ‘limitless potential’

BRIGHTON, England -- Brighton & Hove Albion men's team has gone from strength to strength in recent years and their rise during Tony Bloom's ownership on the south coast has been well documented as they play their first ever European campaign this season. But what of the women's side?

Just as the men had a goal to reach the Premier League (which was achieved for the 2017-18 season) after years of underachieving, the women's team also had a five-year plan to reach the Women's Super League back when they were playing in the third tier. But, like many of those who walk on Brighton's shingle beachfront, they struggled for firm footing. That is until the WSL was restructured to become a fully professional league in 2018-19 and they were awarded a place at the top table.

Even then, things haven't run smoothly. Finishing ninth, ninth, sixth, seventh and 11th in a 12-team league, consistency has been hard to come by. Having taken charge ahead of the 2017-18 season, former England manager Hope Powell was sacked in October 2022 and Amy Merricks was promoted to interim manager. By the end of the year, former Bayern Munich coach Jens Scheuer had taken over, yet he only lasted until the start of March and, once again, Merricks stepped in as the interim solution until the Seagulls named California native Melissa Phillips as boss in April.

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For a club that had been so meticulous in the building of the men's team in recent years under Chris Hughton, Graham Potter and then Roberto De Zerbi, the chaos of the women's team seemed unimaginable. On their fourth manager of the season and with just two wins from their first 15 WSL games, Brighton were rooted to the bottom of the table and Phillips had a job on her hands to avoid relegation. Her idea was to shift perspective and offer optimism and energy to the team.

"The sentiment was 'we have to stay in the league,'" she tells ESPN at Brighton's Elite Performance Centre in Lancing, where a separate bespoke £8.5 million annex for the women's team was formally opened just 15 months ago. "But we just changed that to 'what are we going do to stay in the league?' What's our action plan? Who do we want to be at the end of these [final] seven games? What would we want people to say about us? And how do we want to make a good account of ourselves?

"I think the one thing that the players wanted to reinstate that they'd had in past was a Brighton team that is competitive and hard to beat. That identity goes further than just game to game."

Mel Phillips has come in with a fresh set of ideas that could help Brighton move up the WSL table. John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

The approach yielded immediate results and, in Phillips' first game in charge, Brighton picked up their first win in five months: 3-2 at home to Everton. The win was followed by a narrow loss away to Liverpool before a draw against Tottenham and a home win over West Ham put daylight between themselves and Reading, who ended up relegated by five points.

But for Brighton and Phillips, things could have been very different. The coach was still at Championship club London City Lionesses (LCL) when the Seagulls appointed Scheuer and, with LCL flying high in the second tier, she made the decision to return to the United States and take a job as First Assistant Coach under Freya Coombe at NWSL side Angel City FC in January 2023.

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Yet with her life split between England and America -- - before she'd even shipped her worldly possessions across the Atlantic, she'd purchased a car in California for the next chapter of her career -- the 36-year-old opted to take the Brighton job just four months later. The reason? As well as an alignment of ambition and values, there was a long-standing connection to the club that Phillips had through her partner (who worked under former men's team manager Gus Poyet.) It was only club she would have left Angel City for.

"If I have one regret, it's that I didn't spend more time at Angel City because it's an unbelievable organization with some incredible women that are really empowering players and staff in the organisation to do things differently," she says. "I really enjoyed my time there. I felt that I learned a tremendous amount from the coaches and the staff there in a really short amount of time. I never expected that it would be so short ... I just felt my heart was still in England and with this Brighton project in particular.

"I think if you look at Brighton from afar, it seems like it's got the most potential of any team outside of the top four [in the WSL]. There's support to build the project at the club from the board and the organisation as a whole. It's definitely a big project, but the support is there for us to move in the direction we want to."

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Can Emma Hayes take the USWNT to a new level?

Brighton women's manager Melissa Phillips believes that the appoint of Emma Hayes will take the USWNT to new heights.

Phillips' early years in the American collegiate system at Cal State -- from coaching 14- and 16-year-olds while she was still in her teens, to jobs at San Francisco Dons and Penn Quakers -- have left her feeling that it is her duty to grow her players as people, describing football as "a people business."

"I think everyone thinks the higher you go the more tactics it is, but actually it's more people management that it becomes," she says. "Whether that's staff or players, it's understanding people at their core: what motivates them, how to communicate with them and get the best out them."

With almost two decades of coaching under her belt, and with a grounding in the college game in the U.S. that has a rigid structure around the academic year, Phillips was keen to keep the balance between the football and development of the person behind the player.

"We've got 14 internationals [at Brighton], so working with that many different cultures has really challenged me to think even more about communication," she adds. "I learned so much from them because we've got players with really diverse experiences, so they bring a lot to the table. And that's always been something that's been a really big part of my coaching: making sure that the players are active in the conversation that we have about the direction that we want to go, on and off pitch.

"I think the most important thing to me at this level was still making sure that there was a developmental aspect, both football and people, coupled in with game-game-game every week because it is a 10-month season: so where do you fit in the time for making sure that there's a real focus on the growth of people? I think we found a really good balance with that among our staff with how much time we take during the week to connect, watch clips and sit down to have a conversation about more than just the game but what's actually going on in people's lives."

This hands-on approach is felt in the little details, as Brighton's American forward Madison Haley tells ESPN: "Mel made it a point to make sure that there was a Thanksgiving feast for us. It was a couple days after Thanksgiving -- just up in the canteen -- it was really fun to see all of the girls try pumpkin pie and different things that they're not used to having."

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How Melissa Phillips is changing the culture at Brighton Football Club

Brighton forward Madison Haley speaks about how manager, Melissa Phillips' high standards is changing the culture at Brighton.

Haley, the daughter of five-time NFL Super Bowl winner Charles Haley, was one of 11 new players signed over the summer by Brighton as they looked to put last season's disappointment behind them and kick on. But beyond the player turnover, the summer was key for Phillips to make some changes in how things were run.

"That's where championships/leagues/games are won: in the summer," she says. "It's all about your preparation and attention to detail: executing a big-picture vision of what that looks like day-to-day in your operations. So, we spent a lot of time brainstorming, connecting as a staff to make sure that we upscaled our operations and our processes, so when the players came in, that they felt a significant difference.

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"We really dove deep into everything that we did: how we travel, how we train, what the schedule looks like, how we interact with them. We brought in 11 new faces, but then a lot of players came back feeling as though it was a different club, and it was night and day from what they were used to, and there was that freshness about it."

Much like fans have seen with the men's side, recruitment was key. The players had to be the right fit, be they an up-and-coming Australia international defender like 20-year-old Charlize Rule or an experienced two-time Champions League winner like Pauline Bremer who arrived from VfL Wolfsburg.

"We wanted two things, first and foremost," Phillips says. "[First] For them to make sure that they felt believed in by every staff member: that they believe in the direction that we're going. That they believe in their development, that have every support mechanism that they need.

"[And second] that everything was individualized to the person and the player so that it wasn't just a group of players moving together. We are empowering individuals to be better collectively."

Brighton signed a host of new players over the summer, including Pauline Bremer. Visionhaus/Getty Images

With 10 players leaving, 11 coming in and a few loans thrown in for good measure, it hasn't all been smooth sailing by the seaside (though the Seagulls play their home games 20 miles inland at Broadfield Stadium, the home of Crawley Town.) After nine WSL games, Brighton have just eight points and are ninth, just four points off the bottom. But during a recent stretch of four back-to-back games against last season's top four (beating Manchester City and drawing with Manchester United), they picked up four points and there were some moments of quality that speaks to what Phillips and her team have been building.

"Obviously, you would like the performance to match the result, but that is not always going be the case, especially when we're talking about how competitive this league is," Haley says. "So, for us it's about keeping our heads on straight; there's no need to run for the hills because of a poor result. As long as we continue to develop and to hit the metrics and markers that we want to hit as a team in terms of our performances, we think the results will follow."

There is no doubt that Brighton are hitting a fair number of the markers they want to be. But so much of the process comes from the introspection and open dialogue Phillips preaches as she pushes her players on.

"We've got a really strong process both objectively and subjectively after a match for how we evaluate," she says. "And the players were a big part in formulating that: what do they want to be known for and how do we measure that? And then we make sure we measure that every single week, and keep it about where have we done well, where have we hit our markers, where do we need to continue to improve? Are there any trends across the block of games that we then can really focus and, and make sure we hit home with?"

The ambition of the club is clear and when asked to describe her Brighton, Phillips doesn't miss a beat before making an important distinction that sums up her whole attitude to coaching.

"Our Brighton, is an ambitious women's side," she says. "We want to constantly be moving forward. We want to achieve more every single day. We want to be resilient, robust and adaptable, and utilize all the different resources that we have along the way to grow our mission. We want people with that same drive to come watch us play, to come support us. We want people with that same drive to be a part of the program, to push it forward. Because I really think there's a limitless potential here."

    

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