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Reflections on Guatemala: Q&A with Jill Ellis

Fresh off winning the CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championships in Guatemala City, Guatemala, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis now sets her sights on the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany in July. The USA earned its berth with a 2-1 semifinal victory over Costa Rica and then defeated Mexico 1-0 in the championship game to win the regional title. Ellis took some time to chat with about the tournament, her goals for the preparation period and what kind of a team she wants to take to Germany. You had only a short time to prepare the team for qualifying following the completion of the college season. Was that your biggest challenge heading into the tournament?

Jill Ellis: “It was, because in those two camps, I had to evaluate some players that I hadn’t even seen before, like Morgan Malborough*, and then select the team. Then, very quickly, try to get us organized and ready for match play. This was also going to be the first time Toni Pressley* played in the back for us, and it was the first time Christine Nairn* had been back in with us for a competition, so there were a lot of unknowns and players competing for starting positions. We had to go over everything from how we wanted to play out of the back, to set pieces to settling on a starting lineup. It was all-encompassing and we had a short time to do it.”

Editor’s Note: Toni Pressley is a converted forward and Christine Nairn had been training with the full Women’s National Team. This was Morgan Marlborough’s first international event at any age level. It must be difficult to accomplish the dual goals of development and winning?

JE: “I had individual meetings with all the players and I told them that through the first couple games we would try to give everyone a chance, then as the tournament went deeper, we would be focusing on the players that were in form, but it was definitely a balancing act of trying to get the result and evaluating the players.” Give us your impressions of the level of competition overall. It seems that Costa Rica, which participated in the 2008 U-17 WWC, and Mexico, have raised their games?

JE: “Absolutely, they have. We played Jamaica first, so we got a chance to watch the other teams play and my impression was Costa Rica seemed much better developed athletically, so definitely their investment in youth is paying off. I think overall both Costa Rica and Mexico were very comparable, they both played a good style and for a team like us that is still finding ourselves as far how we are going to defend and play, they presented some very good challenges of us. We had to be individually and collectively sound defensively. The thing about both those teams is that they weren’t going to change, they were going to play their styles, and as the game wore on they almost become stronger because their possession can wear you down.” What was your team’s greatest strength during the tournament?

JE: “Initially going in, I felt like we had a lot of good attacking personalities and our back line was new and untested. Coming out of the tournament, I felt our back line did very well and gave us a lot positives. Now, it’s a matter of finding more depth up top. We’ve got a lot of personalities in the midfield, so now it’s about how we want to play and who we want to play in those midfield spots. It’s going to be a process of figuring out who will be the best options to give us what we want.” Obviously Sydney Leroux came through in a big way, scoring six goals, including the winner in the title game. What does she bring to the team?

JE: “She’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around. It doesn’t matter what the odds or adversity, she’s going to find a way. It’s a great trait to have on a team that’s trying to win a championship. That confidence spills over. You never feel like you are out of a game when you have Syd on the team. I’ve also seen great maturity in her and her role with the team. She’s made big effort to take younger players under her wing and understand the importance of team.” You have a healthy preparation schedule before the World Cup, but what instructions have you given the players for their time away from the team?

JE: “We’ve had several conversations and discussions, but what I like about this group is that they are locked in to our goal. This and their school are the priorities. I’ve had good support from their college coaches about what we are trying to do here. As far what they should be doing away from school, it’s a matter of the individual. Some need to work on finishing, some need work heading or match fitness. I have been very specific with each player as to what their needs are.” You have a core of players set for the run to the World Cup. How much are you still looking for players or giving players opportunities to make the World Cup squad?

JE: “I don’t think the door every really closes. There are always players out there who haven’t had national team experience before, like Morgan Malborough or Kendall Johnson. As the events start to unfold, the more regular players will be together frequently, but I think between now and then, we’ll still have the opportunity to look at a couple different players.” You allowed just two goals during the tournament, one off a set play. You must have been pleased with the back line, which you kept pretty consistent throughout the five games?

JE: “I was impressed with their ability to play 90 minutes over five games. The back line was a concern going into the tournament because we hadn’t played many matches. We’ve converted some players to backs and I’ve been very impressed with our ability to not only shut teams down, but keep possession and get both Rachel (Quon) and Vicki (DiMartino) forward. They were very pleasant surprises, but they are working very hard and have been sponges throughout the process. They are very keen to absorb the information we give them.” What is the biggest area you want to improve in before the World Cup?

JE: “I think transition. I’ve been really trying to instill in the players defending set pieces and dropping when we lose the ball, so our ability to go from defending to attacking and vice-versa is something we can get better at for sure. As the tournament unfolded, we did a better job of moving off the ball, but that’s a scenario we’d like to do better in, especially playing a two-front. We want the attacking movement of our midfield to get better so we can get more players forward. Also, when heading into a world championship, one of the most important things to have is consistency. So a focus right now before we get to Germany is trying to get players consistent. We do have a great balance of technical players and athletes so I think we can play a very nice style.” You’ve spent a lot of time coaching the full Women’s National Team with Pia Sundhage. Do you see a lot of the full team’s qualities in the U-20s?

JE: “I do. I think the U.S. tradition of being competitive and hard-working is apparent with this team and those are qualities that are instilled in all our youth teams. But I also think with a player like Christine Nairn, we’ve got wonderfully creative aspects, as well as the power and strength of a Sydney Leroux. I think we are one of the more athletic teams, so there are similar traits. I learned a lot in spending a year with Pia, and instilling confidence in these players is something that is very important to me as well as allowing them freedom to make decisions on the field.”