Jill Ellis: The Second Time's the Charm
Being at the CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championships in Guatemala City is almost like a second chance for U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis.
Ellis is at the helm of the Under-20 team for the second time, but it will be her first CONCACAF qualifying tournament at this age level. Last time around, Ellis initiated the cycle, but in January of 2008 she made the difficult decision to join U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Pia Sundhage’s staff and watched from afar as Tony DiCicco led the team through CONCACAF qualifying and to the 2008 FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup title in Chile.
“I feel very fortunate to be able to take them through this time,” said Ellis, who helped Sundhage coach the U.S. team to the 2008 Olympic gold medal. “The opportunity presented itself to work with Pia and I loved doing that, but it was a very difficult decision.
“It will be awesome to take a team through a cycle and finish what you start. I felt like the last time we started to put some things in place and then, obviously, I didn’t get to see it personally, but was so happy that Tony did an outstanding job to get the team to win the World Cup.”
In Guatemala City, Ellis will be leading a group of 20 players through three group matches, and then hopefully the semifinals and the final. The top three teams in the region qualify for the 2010 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany.
The U.S. kicks off the CONCACAF tournament on Thursday, Jan. 21, at 5:30 p.m. ET against Jamaica. The match will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel and streamed live on CONCACAF.com. The U-20 Women then face Trinidad & Tobago on Saturday, Jan. 23, and wrap up group play against Mexico on Monday, Jan. 25. All 16 tournament matches will kick off at 5:30 p.m. ET and will be streamed live on CONCACAF.com, and will be available on demand on the site.
A glance at the U.S. roster shows players whose age and experience range from high school seniors to college sophomores and from FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup winners Christine Nairn and Sydney Leroux to players like Morgan Marlborough and Kendall Johnson, who are experiencing the national team program for the first time. There are also quite a few players who were part of the 2008 FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup squad that lost to Korea DPR in the final match.
“The type of experiences this group has says a lot about the development of the players and of the depth and the talent in our country,” said Ellis. “You’re obviously building a team and I think that it’s good to have a variety because you have the energy and excitement of the new players, you have the former Under-17 players with something to finish coming off their silver medal in 2008 and then you’ve got the two players that have been through the journey. So I think all in all, it’s a good group.”
Despite winning the 2008 U-20 Women’s World Cup, the U.S. U-20s didn’t head to Chile as the top team from CONCACAF. That honor went to Canada, which defeated the U.S. 1-0 in the last CONCACAF U-20 Women’s Championships in Puebla, Mexico. While the defeat may have been due to some lapses in concentration on behalf of the U.S. squad, it’s also a testament to the improvement of the youth women’s teams in the CONCACAF region.
“The soccer overall within our region is evolving in every country at every level, men and women,” said Ellis. “In 2008, I went through CONCACAF Olympic qualifying with the full Women’s National Team and it was exciting all the way. There’s a lot of pride and a lot at stake to qualify but also to win a CONCACAF championship. We’re excited to compete and challenge for one. I think that the teams who are here deserve to be here and it’s going to be a competitive tournament.”
Not the least of the challenges comes from finalizing a team after the college season ended in early December, while the Caribbean and Central American nations went through pre-qualifying tournaments to reach the CONCACAF championship.
Two of the USA’s group opponents were together as a team in November for the final stages of the Caribbean qualifying tournament, in which Jamaica tied Trinidad & Tobago 1-1, defeated St. Kitts & Nevis 2-0 and downed Cuba 1-0. Trinidad & Tobago, the USA’s second opponent, defeated Cuba 2-1 and St. Kitts & Nevis 6-0 in the team’s second and third matches, respectively.
Meanwhile, Ellis and her staff didn’t hold training camps during the college season and had just two camps to prepare for the CONCACAF championship.
“Those teams have probably fine-tuned their set pieces and their starters,” Ellis acknowledged. “I think we have a lot of depth and it will be about selecting the players that are in form and gradually seeing the personalities emerge.”
Ellis reiterated that while the team is soaking in the experience of traveling to a Central American country, the players are well aware of the ultimate goal.
“The players understand the purpose,” said Ellis. “The purpose is to qualify. It’s a matter of keeping them focused on the first opponent and not looking past that. It’s about enjoying the ride but also knowing why you’re here and that you’re one of 20 players representing your country. That means a lot and with it comes responsibility. The end product is hopefully getting a CONCACAF championship and getting us to the World Cup.”