Following the USA’s early exit from the 2016 Olympics after falling in penalty kicks in the quarterfinal round, the focus now turns squarely to the future. With several matches on the horizon in the fall, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis sat down with ussoccer.com to discuss the Olympics, the evolution of the U.S. team moving forward, the inevitable changes in the team and the expanding the player pool, among other topics.
ussoccer.com: With a little time to reflect now, can you sum up your thoughts on the Olympics?
Jill Ellis: The outcome was not what we had planned for and was not what we had hoped for. I think coming out of the tournament is a commitment that we need to continue to grow and be better. In that final game we created enough chances but converting is ultimately what the game comes down to. It was disappointing but I think the past nine months, the investment we’ve made in the personnel, I think we had the right pieces and the right blend of youth and experience. We met a stubborn, steady team so now it’s really about us and raising our game. Regardless of what an opponent does, we have to find ways to win. I feel good about the future and the investment we’ve made in the players to date.
ussoccer.com: Your thoughts on falling in penalty kicks to Sweden after dominating the match?
JE: When you get to penalties, then (you lose) a little bit of the control, it becomes a 50-50. We certainly trained penalties and we had our top kickers out there and we had confidence in those players. Sometimes it comes down to a goalkeeper’s spectacular save or the pressure of the moment. It’s a tough way to go out, for sure. Coming out of the World Cup, the game that honestly stuck with me was the Sweden game, because we did struggle to break them down, to create opportunities. I felt this go around we had a lot more chances, a lot more success but we didn’t put penalties away at the end of the day and we gave up a chance. In terms of growth, I saw us grow from the Sweden game in the World Cup to the Sweden game in the Olympics and what this latest result has said is that we have to be even better. Conversion rate is something as a coach you always talk about. At the end of the day a game is won inside the 18, your own or your opponents, and you have to be sharp in there. That’s now something that some of the players took away from that. Our conversion rate, and being deadly and lethal inside 18 yards is the difference and that’s a great lesson to come out of the Olympics.
ussoccer.com: What can you take from the overall performance at the Olympics?
JE: What was important to us coming out of the World Cup was that we continued to grow in our style and how we wanted to play. For the past nine months, with the personnel and the direction, we’ve taken big strides in how we want to play. In the World Cup we were very organized defensively and our attack in transition was very good, but moving forward we wanted to focus on our organized attack. When you’re in clear possession of the ball, how do you want it to look? That’s the hardest thing when you’re dealing with highly organized defenses. I think we’ve made strides in positional play and ball movement.
ussoccer.com: When you were hired, you had about a year before the World Cup, now you almost three years to prepare. How is that process different?
JE: When you come on (board) and there is a world event right around the corner, everything is about a result. When you come out of that phase, the development piece comes to the forefront. It’s about investment and the awareness to look at a player now and say, “ok where are they going to be in two years if the investment is there?”. I think it’s a time to find players and vet players. Two priorities coming out of the Olympics are the quality of the opponents that we play and finding players. The message for the players currently with us is that everything moving forward becomes performance and it’s not about how many caps you have or what you’ve done in the past, but what are you doing in this moment and what are you prepared to do for the future. That’s going to help us. It’s going to make for a healthy competitive environment and force players outside of their comfort levels and these players are at their best when they’re pushed.
ussoccer.com: You have a group of veterans who are approaching 30 or in their 30s. As a National Team coach, it’s always a challenge to balance this sort of transition. What’s your philosophy on it?
JE: Sport is not an environment that is static, change is a real part of it. I think my philosophy going into the Olympics was to expose new players to that kind of experience and certainly with the larger window before the next World Cup, it’s about investing in players that we think will be on that stage in 2019. It’s not where they are today but where they will be. I think for a coach it would be foolish to go into a world event with a completely inexperienced team and also foolish to go in with a team past its prime. That’s the balance. Looking at the players currently in our pool and searching the landscape to see what’s out there and seeing who can help us win another World Cup.
ussoccer.com: What are the goals for the matches in the fall?
JE: The first two games will be bringing in the Olympic roster and having meetings and allowing these players to play in front of the fans. Coming out of those games, we will be looking at everything from this point forward in relation to 2019. Every training session, every match we play, it’s looking at players, evaluating players and gaining experience. So those matches will be important for that and for starting that process. Next year our schedule will be aggressive. We’re always trying to play top-10 teams. It’s a priority and our federation knows it’s a priority for our team because it’s in those games where we will see growth from those young players.
ussoccer.com: What platforms are important in your evaluation for player selection in this next generation considering there will be several pro club seasons not impacted by a world championship?
JE: The platforms we’ll use to look at players will be far and wide. Certainly having a domestic professional league (NWSL) is important and it’s an environment for our players to go and play against quality opposition. We will look at players playing overseas, the college ranks and the Youth National Teams. We’re putting together our scouting calendar and we have to be very aggressive there because we want to see as many players as we can.
ussoccer.com: With the next World Cup in France, will there be a focus on trying to get to Europe for matches? How important is the SheBelieves Cup next year?
JE: In a post-Olympic brief that I will present to the Federation, the priority will be getting quality matches and certainly going to France to play is important. It’s always important to go to the country that hosts. We’ll obviously have top-10 opponents come back for our SheBelieves Cup. Getting those teams here is good for us and for ours fans to see these players up close and personal. The games are critical. They were invaluable for our preparation for the Olympics. Mallory Pugh had never experienced the high quality level of play of these teams. I’m just delighted we will get good games. Traveling is important as well, for some of our younger players, much like they experienced in Brazil, going into a hostile environment, you can’t replicate that and that’s part of the mental preparation.
ussoccer.com: Can you assess the progress/success of players who did not play in the World Cup but were on the Olympic Team?
JE: I think all of our debutants, Allie (Long), Mal, Lindsey (Horan) and Crystal (Dunn), did very well. The experience they got will serve them down the line. The disappointment of not winning is for sure going to motivate them but just the understanding of the pressure of the game and the moment, that was the plan, to get them ready before 2019. I’m very pleased with them that they’ve come in in a short window and become such impactful players for us and I’m excited about them moving forward.
ussoccer.com: Do you see new trends developing in the women’s game and what can we expect from the U.S. team moving forward?
JE: Our staff and I are incredibly excited about the future. One of the things you always look for as a coach is that you start to see trends in the game, and we saw it in the men’s Euros this past year where high defensive organization becomes really tough to break down. We maybe saw that 10, maybe 15 years ago from teams that are perhaps not as strong as their opponent but now you see that some of the best teams in the world are employing those tactics to their advantage. That’s going to force everybody to have to be better at what they do. Unlocking teams is the hardest thing to do. I thought we played some good soccer and I thought we created enough chances, but the challenge for us is to make sure we’re on our front foot in terms of being able to deal with anything.
ussoccer.com: How do you see the team’s style of play continuing to evolve?
JE: Initially, what a coach has is players in front of them and then you say, “how do I maximize those players and get the best out of them?” and then as you start to build a team, you start to bring in players that you think can assist in the way you visualize the game. We’re never going to shy away from our competiveness, from our athleticism, that’s a part of who we are and we should embrace that, but now it’s adding to that. At this level winning is the objective but we feel that we have players and a staff that are invested in not just the what happened but the how it happened. A performance is never truly measured in a scoresheet, it’s just black and white. But we want to take pride in the performance and we’re by no means a finished product, but I think we are adding to the narrative of a style of play and developing towards something and evolving, and that’s important to us.”
ussoccer.com: What are your thoughts on the resiliency of the team after the early exit from the Olympics?
JE: When you come off a devastating loss, or even when you come off a victory, you celebrate or grieve for a few days and then everything becomes about what’s in front of you. What I told the players was, “you can feel bad for a couple of days and then it’s about what are we going to do next because there’s always another game.” You can’t live in the past and what I love about these players is their attitude. They are going to want to go out there and prove themselves again and again and that’s what you need. Whether you’re on the top of the podium or if you don’t make the podium, you need players that are committing to wanting to improve and wanting to get better to get back on top. I actually think, retrospectively, while losing always sucks, this will be a springboard for great things ahead for us.
ussoccer.com: U.S. Soccer made a decision on Hope Solo last week. Your thoughts on the decision and the factors that went into it?
JE: Over time there’s been off the field distractions for which the Federation has taken action. Each time an action has been taken there’s been made clear an expectation that this would be the last time such a step would be necessary. Sadly, how Hope handled her post-Olympic comments forced us to make a significant decision. It’s not simply a decision made about comments, it was based on the sum total of actions that have unfortunately shone a negative light on our program.
ussoccer.com: Your thoughts on the goalkeeper position moving forward?
JE: After the Olympics the plan was always to prepare for 2019 and that means investing in the other goalkeepers and getting them playing time. That’s still the process and it’s the same for every position. Everything right now is building towards 2019 and our future.