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Q & A With U.S. Soccer Director of Development Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis is in her first month as U.S. Soccer’s new Director of Development, overseeing the U.S. U-17, U-15 and U-14 Women’s National Team programs. Along with Technical Director April Heinrichs, she forms the first duo hired to full-time positions to work with the USA’s youth Women’s and Girls’ National Team programs. checked in with Ellis during the first U-17 WNT camp of the new cycle to get her thoughts on the present and future. Congratulations on your position as development director for U.S. Soccer. It’s a massive job with many responsibilities, but what would you say are your main goals right now?
Jill Ellis: “Thank you. My initial responsibilities are two-fold: First, train the teams that fall under my responsibilities during their early programming as well as assemble staffing, and second, to gain perspective, meet people and develop positive working relationships with those involved in our youth development throughout the country. The club coach is an integral part of a players’ daily training so I want to meet, listen, and observe them so as to better understand the challenges that are out there. As you stated, it is a huge task, but our soccer community is a highly motivated group and I have already had a great response from people willing to collaborate and move our game forward.” You are charged with overseeing the U-17 WNT program on down to the younger levels. You are at the start of a new cycle with the 17s, but have started two cycles with the U-20s over the past few years. What is most important to stress for the team at the start of a long cycle?
JE: “Well, exactly as you stated: this is indeed a long cycle and within the cycle the players have the opportunity to grow and to improve. So, if they don’t feel they are in the top group just yet they have to be motivated to close the gap, and if they are one of the more senior players in the group then they have to evolve to not get surpassed. I have tried to reassure these players that one camp this early will not make or break their fate with this team. It is a process and they will be evaluated continuously in all arenas they play in. In my last U-20 cycle, (defender) Crystal Dunn was in the first camp and then she did not return for a few events. She stayed positive, worked at the things she was told she needed to improve on and she became a major player on the World Cup stage in the summer of 2010.” Is there a major difference in starting with the U-17s at the beginning of the cycle as compared to the U-20s?
JE: “Some differences yes, but a lot of similarities. In both age groups the desire to play World Cup soccer is an incredible goal for all these players. In both cases they have to navigate the rigors of going through a cycle to remain standing as one of final members of the World Cup roster. The 20s pool is a mix of college and high school players whereas this team will be all high school-age players. I am learning the differences. This is only my first camp but most of the players in this group have not watched themselves on film and had critical analysis. Many of these players play in many different environments and so the volume of soccer they actually have is greater than the college players. And a huge piece for these younger players is navigating their academics – they don’t have the ability to take a semester off, or do online classes so we have to be thoughtful about the other demands in their young lives.” We imagine that the two-year difference in age from the U-17s to the U-20s makes a huge difference in their physical development?
JE: “It does. In fact, we are in camp with the U18s as well right now and even one year makes a difference in the physical maturity of these players. Both teams have tremendous athletes but mingling in the hotel lobby you can certainly pick out the players born in 1994. Add to that the fact that 17-year-olds operate at a higher volume!” You have only had a short time to see the new pool of U-17’s. Are you encouraged so far in the attitude, athleticism and skill level?
JE: “Yes. I have already found that many of them have an excellent base. We have done SPARQ testing and some of the numbers in certain areas are as good as or higher than the older teams. Many of them have shown an incredibly high training mentality and their enthusiasm and desire to improve is boundless. We have spent a lot of time doing technical work and they get really into it and take great pride in trying to be precise. This group has personality and ability.” What is the major change these players need to make jumping from their clubs, ODP teams etc. to the national team level?
JE: “Well, as I have explained to many of them who are finding the week challenging, being uncomfortable is exactly what they need. Back home these players are the strongest on their teams and dominate their training sessions and most likely their matches. Here with the national team, the demand on them is greater because of the depth of talent around them, and then add to that their opponents are other national teams. In every area there is someone better than them at something. I think this environment makes them understand they must keep evolving as players.

“I would say the most common comments I have heard from the players about the environment is the speed of play, intensity at training, and the realization that everyone here is good and everyone here is motivated. I have spoken to them about the importance of discipline, work ethic, and passion as variables that will determine how far they can go within our programs. These qualities will carry them when they return to their clubs so they can continually push and challenge themselves to get better.” In what ways has the two U-17 Women’s World Cups staged so far accelerated the development of women’s soccer world-wide at this age level?
JE: “Well I think the installment of a World Cup at a younger age group allowed countries developing women’s soccer to chase a smaller gap and compete almost immediately. Some countries have poured a lot of resources in the younger age groups so they can step onto the world stage and be competitive. It has showcased the game in countries that may not have had extensive exposure to women’s soccer, like New Zealand and Trinidad & Tobago. Bottom line, having youth World Cups has given our players at a younger age the thrill and experience of competing for their countries in the preeminent tournament in the world.”