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.
I got a call that every soccer player dreams of a few days after our last game of the NWSL season.
My coach at the Western New York Flash, Paul Riley, had come up to me a couple of days before that and told me that Jill Ellis might bring me into National Team camp. I was really excited and anxious then, but when I got the call from Tim Ryder, the WNT General Manager, I was sitting in my living room, doing some packing and doing some phone interviews, so it caught me a bit off-guard.
I was trying to act very cool, but on the inside I was so excited. In fact, it’s highly likely that I didn’t sound cool at all.
He told me that I was invited into the training camp for the two games against Switzerland in Utah and Minnesota, but that I had to keep it under wraps until U.S. Soccer officially announced the roster. Of course, I immediately called my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend but I told them that WE ALL needed to keep it a secret.
The roster was announced a week later after we’d won the semifinal against Portland and before the NWSL Championship. I’m not the most talkative person, but it was hard keeping that secret for a week!
Before coming to Utah, I’d only been in a few youth camps with the Under-23s, and all those girls had known each other for a long time. Everyone was nice, but I remember feeling that they were a bit standoffish until you proved yourself, so that’s what I was expecting from the senior group, except times ten. These players are professionals, Olympic champions, World Cup champions and they have tremendous confidence in the environment.
I was a bit nervous about how to fit in.
Williams helped lead the WNY Flash to the club's first NWSL title as the league MVP and Golden Boot winner.
Soccer-wise, coming off the NWSL season, I felt fresh and confident, but I knew it was going to be hard. Coming into a National Team camp any time is hard, and I knew doing it for the first time was going to be a big challenge.
I was definitely nervous about the soccer.
Naturally, the veterans gravitate towards the veterans and the newbies gravitate towards the newbies, but there were 11 uncapped players going in so I knew I wasn’t going to be by myself. Of course, I also knew my Western New York teammates Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, so that was a bit more comforting.
What I didn’t expect was that the veterans would be so welcoming, on and off the field. When you made a mistake, they said “try this instead” and when you did something well, they would commend you for it. That support really made training even more fun. I learned a lot and every practice was awesome.
That said, training was intense. Everyone was so excited to get into camp that the first couple of days it was like a bunch of mad women running around. As Arin Gilliland said to a reporter, “WNT training is like the NWSL, on three cups of coffee.” It’s probably like five cups.
And it was not just the physical speed; the speed of thought is also so heightened. Playing in New York, sometimes I feel like I can get away with receiving the ball and then decide what to do with it. With the National Team, you have to have like three different options in your mind even before you receive the ball. I knew I needed to improve on that.
We got tons of information from the coaches. Some of the stuff you already know, but the language and the verbiage is different so you have to learn that. You have to learn how they want you to play in a particular formation, you have to learn your assignments on set plays and you have to learn it quickly. Fortunately, everyone is open to questions.
I asked Becky (Sauerbrunn) and Christen (Press) a million questions and my roommate Alyssa (Naeher) probably two million. I am sure she was thinking, “Man, this girl sure asks a lot of questions.” But I figured better to ask than not to ask and look like I have no idea what I’m doing, which I’m sure was still the case some of the time.
For me, the first few days were challenging. You’re trying to get a feel for all the players, their tendencies and how they like to play. Mentally, I think I was putting more pressure on myself that I needed to.
On the third day, I found out I would be a sub for the game. I told myself, “Lynn, stop being such a psycho, stopping being so chaotic, you know how to play soccer,” and I settled in a bit.
I thought I had a good practice the day before the game in Utah and then the day came and I told myself I needed to play even better in the game. After the game, I told myself I needed to play even better in the next practice. Of course, you can’t do that every day, but you have to challenge yourself and that’s the kind of attitude you have to have.Read more