Friday October 24th, 2014

CHESTER, Pa. — There was a time, U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis says, when she’d just come to the U.S. from her native England as a teenager and she was so painfully shy she’d be nervous to order food at a restaurant. These days, when she’s cracking wise with her players and everyone else in her orbit, it’s almost impossible to imagine Ellis that way.

But that’s the power—the confidence—that success in sports can give someone at a young age. Growing up in the U.K., Ellis fell for soccer and her beloved Manchester United, but she was never allowed to play an organized version of the game. Girls just didn’t do that.

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Then she moved with her family to the Washington, D.C., area at age 16 and everything changed. Ellis met a soccer player at her high school named Megan McCarthy, who invited her to try out for her club team. Ellis, a forward, made the roster for Braddock Road, joining five future NCAA All-Americas—McCarthy would become a U.S. national team defender—and won the 1984 Under-19 national club title by beating a team with the legendary Michelle Akers. Along the way, the shy British transplant found liberation on the soccer field. 

“That was a big turning point,” Ellis says. “Sport gave me a comfort level. It gave me more of who I am.”

But even though Ellis enjoyed a standout playing career at William & Mary (and, incidentally, became a U.S. citizen), she didn’t want to become a coach. Her father, John, had traveled the world as a coach for the Royal Marine Corps before settling with the family in Virginia.

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“In high school people would ask me, ‘What does your dad do?’” Ellis recalls. “And honestly I was a little embarrassed to say he was a soccer coach. Because their dads were doctors and attorneys. I didn’t know anyone else whose parents were coaches.”

Ellis coached while pursuing a master’s degree at N.C. State, though, and she became a full-time technical writer at Northern Telecom for four years, earning around $40,000 a year. In 1994, then-Maryland head coach April Heinrichs offered Ellis an assistant’s job at a slightly lower salary: $6,000 a year.

“And then,” Ellis says, “everything became about coaching.”

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Her father, who ran popular camps in the D.C. area, gave Jill the chance to teach principles of attack and defense in front of 200 young campers. Ellis had the gift, and she had the drive, coaching youth players and college players at every level of the game. She climbed the coaching tree, first as an assistant (at Maryland and Virginia) and then as a head coach at Illinois and UCLA (where she led the Bruins to eight Final Fours in 11 years).

The shy high-schooler became the ultimate people person.

“I like to build connections,” Ellis says. “I feel like if you can build a connection you can convey information and build a pathway to a player. Ultimately, it’s about creating an environment that’s productive and competitive. I like to have direct conversations. Communication is critical for me. As a college coach I was the person who could put my arm around a player, and if they needed a little kick in the tail I could give them that. It’s a little different here [with the U.S. women’s team], but I still want to be a coach who helps our players perform and be successful.”

Ellis’s job is straightforward: Bring the U.S. a World Cup title for the first time since 1999. But it’s more difficult than ever, not least because the rest of the world has gotten better over the years. And so, when Ellis took over the U.S. women in May for the fired Tom Sermanni, she put a quote on the board in front of the team: Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get run over.

“I know what they want: They want to improve," Ellis says. "Alex [Morgan] wants to be the best player in the world. She knows she has to improve. Every single one of these players wants to get better. Going in, I knew that wouldn’t insult them. I knew that was exactly what they needed, in the sense that they know they have to evolve to get better. Even since 2011, teams have gotten better.”

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There are some big differences between Ellis and previous coach Tom Sermanni, who was fired in April, according to U.S. players. Sermanni was old school and didn’t have the players do much video analysis, while Ellis does use video as well as cutting-edge statistics to analyze the team’s play. Several players also said they didn’t know where they stood with Sermanni, while Ellis has been proactive about communication and having an open-door policy. The players say she has a better understanding of the American player’s psyche having been part of the U.S. system for many years.

“Because she’s been around the women’s national team program for so many years, some of her strengths come in knowing what the culture is here,” says Abby Wambach. “Her ability to effectively motivate us in those ways is really important. Pia [Sundhage] and Tom were from different countries originally, and there’s so much value to be added when talking about a coach that literally coached a lot of us when we were 20 years old. Knowing how we’ve evolved and grown and how we all tick, she’s very smart and good at picking out things to motivate players.”

When asked what she brings to the team that might be different from previous coaches, Ellis says: “Analysis is a part of who I am. I’d say I’m probably a modern coach. I wasn’t in with Tom, but I was with Pia. I’ll give you a crazy statistic: We had in one of our games 20 throw-ins, and we gave 70 percent of them to the other team. I said to my players, that’s 20 opportunities for us to do something special, so take that level of care. Then the next game we were 100 percent. That’s a tiny piece of it.” Ellis also talks to her team about “superfactors,” driving home the importance of possession and conversion of opportunities.

Given just 12 months to prepare the team for the World Cup, Ellis has gone all-in. She likely would have gotten the U.S. job when it was two years ago, but she removed her name from consideration. The timing wasn’t right, she says. She had been traveling extensively as Sundhage’s assistant, and she wanted to spend more time with her wife, Betsy Stephenson, whom she married last Thanksgiving, and their daughter, Lily.

But the timing was better this time around, Ellis says. The family had moved to the Miami area for Stephenson’s new job, and Ellis was closer to her parents, who live in Orlando. “The other part was, holy crap, how many times is this window going to be open?” Ellis says with a smile. “And then I was like, ‘God, I really want this job.’”

Now she has it. And she knows there’s only one acceptable result next summer. It’s all part of the gig.

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