After leading the United States women to their third World Cup victory, Jill Ellis has signed a long-term contract extension as head coach and has her focus firmly on what comes next after conquering Canada 2015.
With Olympic qualifying following closely behind the tour of 10 friendlies coming up, much of the talk in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday focused on the future of the player pool.
“Nothing is ever static when you’re dealing with a team and players and all of the things that come into play,” Ellis said. “Nothing is set in my mind. It’s again beginning another process.”
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati would not specify how many years Ellis’ new contract spans, but he did talk about his delight with having come to an agreement and Ellis’ performance in the job so far.
“When she took the job a little over a year ago, she was coming in relatively late to the game, but she knew the player pool, she knew the players and she knew the demands on the program,” Gulati said. “I think it’s safe to say … that all of our goals were achieved.”
Ellis took over as U.S. manager in May 2014, just five months ahead of World Cup qualifying and after Tom Sermanni’s sudden firing. Ellis had previously served as interim head coach in 2012 before Sermanni, as well as being the U.S. Soccer director of development on the women’s side.
As such, her knowledge of the available players was vast, but she said she also needed to keep her focus narrow ahead of the tournament in Canada this summer.
“As we were preparing for a World Cup, the priority had to be the World Cup,” she said. “Building for the future is always part of a national team coach’s priority, and evaluation is always a mainstay in what I’m doing. I think the players that get invited into the program are players that we think are good enough to be able to contribute.”
Following up on the U.S.’s World Cup victory, the team will play 10 matches across the country as part of a victory tour. The first two games take place Aug. 16 and 19 against Costa Rica, in Pittsburgh and Chattanooga, Tennessee, respectively.
Gulati said Ellis is free to call any players she would like for those games, regardless of whether they played for the U.S. at the World Cup. With Shannon Boxx and Lauren Holiday retiring at the end of year and Abby Wambach’s future still up in the air, the latter matches could provide an opportunity for new players to come through the system.
“With such a quick turnaround to Olympic qualifying, this also has to be an evaluation period,” Ellis said. “With these good opponents coming in, I want to use this opportunity to evaluate and assess for the future.”
CONCACAF’s tournament for Olympic qualification is set for early 2016. The official dates and host country are yet to be determined, but Ellis said she believed it would be in early February.
Women's soccer website The Equalizer reports it will take place in the USA in February.
The U.S. will play four matches in December, followed by a longer camp and potentially another game in January to prepare for the qualifiers. Two groups of four will compete for two available places, which will be filled by the tournament finalists, at Rio 2016.
“Really, it’s partly using some of these games [in the victory tour] to evaluate and to build some things in,” Ellis said. “Then also, the January camp will be [important].”
Ellis said she would be open to any U.S.-eligible players joining the squad, regardless of where their club is located, if they can help the team. However, the U.S.’s schedule, which doesn’t always fall within dates where clubs must release players for international duty, makes it more challenging to call in European-based players.
The last players called in from outside the U.S. were Christen Press, Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenberg, when they played for Tyresö in Sweden.
All three moved to NWSL after that club folded, and their coach there, Tony Gustavsson, joined Ellis’ staff. Gustavsson still lives in Sweden, so he will be able to scout U.S. players in Europe, Ellis said.
“We’re keeping tabs on players overseas,” Ellis said. “Would I like to see players here [in the NWSL] because we can then have that access to them? Certainly, but we never will overlook a player that’s overseas if they can help us.”
All indications are that, even with a short turnaround between the World Cup and Olympics in the women’s international calendar, the team that takes the field in Brazil next summer could be very different than the one that lifted the trophy in Canada.