Perseverance Got Ellie Jean to the World Cup

U.S. U-20 WNT defender Ellie Jean dealt with some hurdles that are certainly not uncommon for young soccer players, but with some mental toughness, an excellent support system, and certainly a lot of talent, she glided over them to earn a spot on the World Cup team.

Five years might not seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re not yet 20-years-old, it’s a solid quarter of your life.

That’s how long Ellie Jean has been waiting to play in a World Cup, dating back to when she first started getting called into U.S. Under-17 WNT training camps and the prospect of representing her country on the word’s stage came into focus. And really, she’s been waiting most of her life, ever since she started playing the game on the spongy fields of Coventry, Connecticut when she was five years old.

Jean, a lithe outside back who covers vast swaths of the field like the former cross country champion she is, was a key player on the U.S. team that was hoping to earn a berth to the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.

The USA dominated the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, out-scoring its opposition 24-1, but a penalty kick shootout loss in the semifinal to Mexico ended the USA’s World Cup dreams.

Jean and her teammates would defeat eventual U-17 Women’s World Cup champion Japan during the NTC Invitational in Carson, Calif., three months later to gain some redemption and show how talented that group was, but the cycle ended after that tournament without a World Cup appearance.

“After we lost with the 17s, it was really difficult for me, and difficult for a lot of us,” said Jean. “It was the first time any of us had failed on that kind of big stage. We’d lost games before of course, but this was different. We had all worked really hard, and you always think if you do that hard work you usually achieve your goals, but when we didn’t qualify, I realized that isn’t always the case.”

Jean said she took some time off from soccer, and questioned if she wanted to put herself in that position again, with the possibility of such huge disappointment.

The answer was a resounding, yes, with a twist. She was looking at it backwards. She wanted to put herself in a position that had the possibility of amazing success, while also realizing that the true reward was in the journey, not necessarily the final destination.

“It was a turning point for me,” she said. “It was about growing up and realizing what being an elite soccer player was going to be like. There were going to be ups and downs, wins and defeats, amazing highs and crushing losses. To realize that and understand that was the kind of life I wanted to lead was a big point in my life.

“I knew deep down that I wanted to always pursue great things, but I was hurt. Is it worth it if there’s a chance I won’t get to my end goal? Am I doing everything I can? Maybe I can’t be as great as I want to be? I was doubting myself a bit, but I tried to keep those thoughts out of my mind, tried to keep working hard, be a positive person, get in the training sessions and try to get called into the next camp, whatever age group or wherever it was, that my basic goal at that point.”

From the U-17s, she matriculated to the U.S. U-18 WNT during 2014, playing with a group in which most players would soon be going off to college. But when the new U-20 cycle started, she found herself out of the mix. Instead, she got called into the U.S. U-19 WNT events.

“I was always really positive about it and I think (U-19 WNT head coach) Jitka (Klimkova) really helped,” Jean said. “She was just so encouraging and talking about the U-20s and trying to get us there. She gave me motivation to keep me thinking that I was not missing out, and my family and my support system back home were also really important to keeping me on the right track.”

She admitted it was hard seeing other U-19s getting called into U-20 events, but she kept a positive attitude and kept working. She played in one U-20 camp in 2015, but did not play in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament at the end of the year as she was helping Penn State win an NCAA title, an experience she says impacted her greatly when she finally did get the U-20 nod at the beginning of 2016.

“I think my freshman college season helped me a lot,” Jean said. “It kept my mind off the National Team a bit and I feel like I grew up. I left home. I had a lot of fun with my teammates and (Penn State head coach Erica Dambach) is really an amazing coach. She helped me get adjusted to the college game and helped me with my mentality which translated to the international game. Of course, winning the national championship was a big deal and that can’t help but give you confidence.”

Jean was a bit injured at the end of the college season and was not ready for the USA’s January 2016 training camp. She finally got the call for the February trip to Spain and was off and running.

“Ellie has matured in a number of ways at outside back,” said U.S. U-20 head coach Michelle French. “Her understanding of the game defensively has increased tremendously both with her experience at the college level by simply becoming more tactically aware of the responsibilities of the position. She has an incredible engine to get up and down the line. For her to bring that type of athletic presence to the outside back position on both sides of the ball is a huge asset to our team.”

Jean found out that she had made the World Cup Team during a meeting with French at a training camp in North Carolina. She admits that her heart was pounding a bit walking into the room.

“It was really nerve-wracking,” said Jean. “And she told me, ‘I want you to know that you made the World Cup roster.’ I felt a lot of relief when I heard that because I was no longer competing for a spot, now I was on the team, and it was about continuing to get better and grow as a group towards a common goal. I bet a lot girls cried, even though they might not say they did, but I did. I called my mom and I was crying, but It was a really happy moment for me.”

Now, on the cusp of competing in the U-20 Women’s World Cup, the highest level of competition for players her age, Jean heads into the tournament with more perspective than she had as a younger teenager.

“I’m excited and a bit nervous too, as everyone is, but overall I’m just really excited to take on this challenge with this group of players,” Jean said. “I think we can do great in this tournament and I just want to go out there and have a lot of fun, that’s really important, and represent my country by competing really, really hard. You have to have the confidence to leave everything on the field and we are going to do that.”