Jill Ellis probably could have won 10 World Cups instead of two, and there would always have been fans—and even many of her own players—who would have continued to say the U.S. succeeded despite its coach, not because of her.
And let’s be honest: Ellis’s questionable lineup choices, in-game substitutions and lack of communication with players were often topics that came up when you had an offline conversation with some of the U.S. players, those who worked with her on a daily basis. In recent months, there were even whispers that some U.S. veterans might choose to retire early if Ellis stayed on after the World Cup.
But the fact remains: Ellis won two straight World Cups. Nobody else has done that in the women’s game, and it’s possible that nobody else will. That alone deserves a tremendous amount of credit.
Ellis decided to step down as the USWNT coach on Tuesday, leaving the most coveted job in women’s soccer and doing so while she was at the very top. She’ll continue through the end of the Victory Tour in early October before calling it quits.
You knew a decision was coming. Ellis’s contract was set to expire on Wednesday, with U.S. Soccer holding a one-year option if both sides decided she would continue through next year’s Olympics.
On the one hand, it was easy to assume that Ellis would continue, not least because she had earned the chance, and also because the quick one-year turnaround between the World Cup and Olympics would make it challenging for the team to adjust to a new coach in time to challenge for gold at Tokyo 2020. But, toward the end of the World Cup, word trickled in from sources at U.S. Soccer that we should not assume Ellis would continue, even if the U.S. won the tournament.
No team has ever won a women’s World Cup and then gone on to win the gold medal in the Olympics a year later. And while you might have suspected that incentive could drive Ellis on for another year, there’s also a reason why no team has pulled off the double. Ellis may have decided to quit while she was ahead.
It’s also worth noting that what Ellis did to put the U.S. in position to win World Cup 2019 was completely different than what she did en route to the 2015 title. Four years ago, Ellis was forced to put Carli Lloyd higher up the field starting in the quarterfinals due to yellow card suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday. That move ended up making the difference, as Lloyd dominated games from that point on.
But after the U.S. went out in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, the fundamental shift that Ellis engineered in the U.S.’s approach—turning the Americans from a conservative outfit into a 4-3-3, attack-first freight train—was truly impressive. Yes, there were growing pains, especially in 2017, when veteran players unsuccessfully sought to remove Ellis from the job. But when the games mattered most in 2019, Ellis and her team delivered.
What comes next? Ellis will coach through early October and, according to U.S. Soccer, serve for the next year as a U.S. Soccer ambassador. The hiring of U.S. Soccer’s first general manager for the USWNT is imminent, the federation says, and that person will be in charge of hiring the new coach.
There figure to be plenty of candidates, including Tony Gustavsson, Laura Harvey, Mark Parsons, Paul Riley, Vlatko Andonovski and Mark Krikorian. And while it’s a great job to have, the challenge of winning in Japan next year will be undeniable considering the new coach will have only nine months on the job before the tournament.
Then again, there was a coach who took over the USWNT in 2014, had just a year to prepare for the World Cup and pulled off the feat.
That coach was Jill Ellis.