Ex-USWNT star Michelle Akers has concerns for Jill Ellis, team direction
It’s fair to say that nobody cares more for the U.S. women’s national team than Michelle Akers, a two-time Women’s World Cup winner, who’s arguably the greatest U.S. women’s player of all time. Akers, now 49, doesn’t hide her thoughts on anything, and that was the case again last week when she posted this on her Twitter page (@MichelleAkers10) during the U.S.’s 2-0 loss to France:
So when I spoke to Akers on Thursday ahead of Friday’s U.S. game at England (2:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), I had to ask: Does that mean you think Jill Ellis shouldn’t be coaching the U.S. team ahead of the Women’s World Cup, which is less than four months away?
“When Tom Sermanni was fired [in April 2014] with so little time to prepare for the World Cup, I felt like we needed somebody who’s been there, done that,” Akers said. “We need somebody who knows all the players, who’s been to World Cups, been to the Olympics and won them [as a head coach]. Because we have a lot to do in a short amount of time. So there can’t be a learning curve.”
“The logical choice for me was Tony,” she continued. “I always get this, ‘You’re old-school, he’s old-school, he doesn’t understand the current game.’ And I’m like, ‘Bulls---. The game is the game.’”
DiCicco, of course, was the coach the last time the U.S. won a Women’s World Cup, in 1999, and he also coached the 2008 U.S. team (with a young Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux) to the world Under-20 title.
The U.S. senior team has set an incredibly high standard over the years, but it has also lost four times in the past year—including its first loss to France in 17 meetings—and Akers says it’s alarming that there’s still so much uncertainty in the team this close to a World Cup.
She thinks Ellis, the former UCLA coach who was an assistant to ex-U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, has been put in an extremely difficult spot.
“She’s a nice person, and she’s obviously been in the U.S. women’s national team program a long time, so I have respect for her,” Akers said of Ellis. “I just think it’s very tough to be in the position she’s in with so little time, never having been there before [as a head coach], to put all the pieces together.”
Akers made sure to acknowledge that she’s not in the U.S. camp, so it’s hard to make too many judgments, and that the U.S. was missing several players against France, including Hope Solo (suspended), Christie Rampone (injured), Megan Rapinoe (injured) and Leroux (injured). But she was also scratching her head about some of the lineup choices made by Ellis.
“There were a lot of big names out, but there should have been someone strong in holding midfield,” Akers said. “We were so soft there, and that’s where [France] penetrated so often. We’ve got to shut them down in midfield. And why not put Abby [Wambach, who didn’t start] up top? She’s a beast. That would take some pressure off Morgan … And with [Carli] Lloyd playing on the outside, it felt like lots of people were out of position. Once Jill switched things around [in the second half], it got a little better.”
In the bigger picture, Akers said she has two wishes:
• That more former world champion players from the 1990s would become coaches in the U.S. women’s program (including at youth levels). Akers noted that April Heinrichs, who was on the ’91 World Cup champion, is the U.S. women’s technical director, but she wants there to be more examples. “Why is this rich wealth of knowledge and guidance not a part of our current program?” she said.
• That there would be a better connection between the players of today and those U.S. players from the ‘90s. “Somewhere along the way there was this split,” Akers said. “I don’t know why it happened, but the fact is it’s there. It’s frustrating. If we want our team to be the best, who we are today comes out of where we were yesterday.” She’d like to see something more like the Carolina basketball family of the late Dean Smith, in which different generations of his players came together annually and knew each other well.
What’s more, Akers said, she’d love to be a coach in the women’s national team program. She said she has a USSF B license, and she regularly works with small groups and individuals on a soccer field at her farm outside Atlanta. After Sermanni was fired, she expressed interest with U.S. Soccer in being an assistant on the senior team.
But after a week-long youth national team camp in San Diego where she worked with players under Heinrichs, she said she hasn’t heard back from U.S. Soccer since.
In Akers’ mind, the debate over the direction of the U.S. women’s team shouldn’t be about skill vs. athleticism. “It’s both,” she said. “You keep the things that distinguish you as the best, keep your strengths and build on everything else. That’s what the complete game is, what everyone is driving for.”
And she worries that the famous winning mentality the U.S. has been known for might not be what it used to be.
“In past games, I was frustrated that all the fouls were happening against us,” she said. “I liked that we came out [against France] and ran a couple people over from the get-go. It was like, ‘All right, we’re establishing if you want to be out here you’d better be ready for a little something-something. I like that we were mixing it up and being more physical and showing that mentality.”
If you follow her Twitter feed, you know that Akers still bleeds for the Stars & Stripes. She will again on Friday when she watches the England game in her living room. But one of the greatest players in women’s soccer history is also wondering if anyone is listening to her.