They say timing is everything, but perhaps putting in the time is everything.
In the case of new U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis, that time began as a 15-year-old coming to America from Portsmouth, England, with a passion for soccer shared by few women in 1981, or at least millions less than in 2014.
The daughter of a soccer coach, Ellis grew up in the American soccer system. She won a national club title at the under-19 level, had a stellar playing career at the College of William and Mary and went on to coach more than 300 NCAA Division I matches. Along the way, she coached at virtually every level of the U.S. Women’s National Team programs, watching several generations of female players grow from teenagers into seasoned and highly successful professionals with the U.S. Women’s National Team, which became the most successful women’s soccer team in the world.
Now, she is charged with continuing that legacy, and she couldn’t be more excited and ready for the challenge. And oh, it will be a challenge.
Although the American team has enviable depth all over the field, the improvement of the women’s international game over the last 10 years has been tremendous. The competition Ellis must navigate therefore comes not only from the outside but also from within.
She will be the one deciding who makes rosters and who earns coveted spots in the starting 11.
“Part of my core make-up is always to be honest,” said Ellis. “Whatever team I’ve coached, I’ve always said that decisions will be made that are best for the team and you’ll always get it served up straight because I think players appreciate that. If the players buy into the team and the team-first mentality, they’ll understand it. They appreciate honesty.”
Ellis is stepping back from her position as U.S. Soccer’s Youth Development Director, a position she has held since the start of 2011 that tasked her with liaising with the youth soccer community throughout the country while overseeing the youngest age groups at the U-14, U-15 and U-17 levels. That being the case, she’ll never lose sight of the overall picture.
“I feel like I have a really good insight into the challenges at each level of soccer, and I know the effort that all those coaches put in,” said Ellis. “They really work hard and care about the game. I’ve worked at the club level and obviously I coached at the university level and with the Youth and senior National Teams, so for me it’s been a phenomenal journey. I left college because ultimately this environment, the National Team, international soccer, is what I love. It’s intoxicating. But, I’ll never lose sight of where the work really starts – with our youth.”
As the head coach of the U-21s and U-20s, Ellis has coached almost every player in the current senior player pool. As an assistant coach for the full National Team under Pia Sundhage, she’s seen firsthand the best teams and the best players in the most intense environments the world has to offer. She knows the players and their vast array of talents and personalities.
“Certainly, almost this entire pool of players I’ve worked with in the youth levels, with the U-21s or the U-20s,” said Ellis. “That’s great because I really feel like I have a connection to those players. Some of those players I’ve even cut off rosters, but I know them, I know their abilities, and I also recognize how they’ve grown and really started to come into their own. It definitely gives me an advantage, an insight into their personalities and their work ethic.”
Ellis’ first challenge as the official head coach will come against France in two June friendlies. She’s happy to get the chance for the players to test themselves against one of the best teams in the world.
“The first task at hand is to determine the roster for the France games,” said Ellis. “Those are two unbelievable opportunities against a world-class opponent. These are games to build on the relationships between the current players and also to perhaps give some newer players a look. You’re always going to evaluate and you’re always going to be looking for players you think can help you.”
To that end, Ellis will be consuming vast amounts of NWSL action this summer. To conduct this interview, she had to pull herself away briefly from watching the web stream of the Boston Breakers hosting the Chicago Red Stars.
“The NWSL has been great. I’ve been able to go out and watch games, and the teams are really trying to play,” said Ellis. “We’re getting more and more technical as a country. I’ve seen it in the youth teams, and we want to play a style where we keep the ball, which you need to do in order to win at the highest level. The NWSL is doing exactly what it needs to do – provide an environment for younger players to improve and prove themselves. It’s a place where players who have been off the radar can get an opportunity to shine.”
For all national team coaches, the integration of young players is vital. That process has certainly already started in this cycle and Ellis will continue along that path with, she says, the help of the players who have already piled up a vast amount of caps.
“For the younger players you have to encourage them when they come into our environment,” said Ellis. “For the veteran players you have to let them know that this is part of the process and they need to welcome these players, and I think they’ve done a great job of that. They’ve really embraced the young players because at the end of the day, these players want to win. They need the person across from them and next to them to really be on the same page. You only do that by establishing that team chemistry, and our team knows that.”
Ellis will be a tough coach. She will be demanding. She will hold the players to their own high standards and those of the program and its legacy. But she will also be understanding and appreciative of the work her players and staff do to make the team go. She is quick to speak of her admiration for all the WNT players and coaches that came before this moment and of the work they did to get the U.S. team to where it is today. She will honor that legacy with a dedication to positivity and instilling confidence.
“I’ve seen this team thrive in a positive environment, whether they’re world champions or they’re youth players,” said Ellis. “They want to have confidence. Part of a coach’s job is to help foster that confidence. There are going to be tough times, both on and off the field, but a coach’s job is to prepare them to succeed, to let them know that no matter what the score or the environment they find themselves in, they can be successful.”
And so the Ellis Era begins.
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup