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.
Originally published on October 7, 2015.
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but with games played in the middle of the night back home and in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-6-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more