As U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati described his ideal coach for the women’s national team after Tom Sermanni was fired, he said he would prefer an American woman, all other qualifications being equal. Despite being born in England and immigrating to the United States as a teenager, new manager Jill Ellis told SI.com she considers herself to fit that description.
“I really feel like I’m a product of American soccer,” Ellis, 47, said in a phone interview Friday after her public introduction. “Yes, 100 percent, believe that I’m very proud to be an American. This country has already gifted me and my family so much, and this is just another phenomenal testament to opportunity in America.”
Ellis moved to the U.S. at age 15 and played club soccer and collegiately as a forward at College of William and Mary. She coached at University of Illinois and UCLA before taking a full-time position as the U.S.’s development director, also coaching the under-20 and under-21 national teams and serving as an assistant for the gold-medal-winning teams at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
She was also the interim head coach of the senior team twice, bookending Sermanni’s brief stint, and many of the new crop of young players came through the ranks under her watch. Ellis coached the U.S. to the quarterfinals of the 2010 U-20 Women’s World Cup with a squad that included Crystal Dunn, Kristie Mewis and Sydney Leroux.
“The beauty of seeing what’s coming along through the pipeline: it gives me great insight,” Ellis said.
While women’s soccer has evolved and the rest of the world begins to catch up, the U.S. team continues to be dominated largely by its veteran personalities. Despite that and the rumors that more experienced players had a large role in Sermanni’s dismissal, Ellis said she doesn’t perceive that the old guard feels threatened by younger players.
“I can’t state that for a fact, but what I can say is I know the players -- and I’ve been in that environment since ’08 -- and what these players are very, very good at is recognizing players that are going to help them and that belong. I saw Alex [Morgan] get embraced by this team, and they recognize that, so I think the players have been very open,” Ellis said. “It really is about bringing in players that you think can handle the environment, and then they get vetted in the environment. ... I think what people kind of forget is, as a professional athlete, it is a day-in, day-out vetting process, so they have to continue to prove themselves.”
Ellis, who listed father John Ellis, a former U.S. assistant under April Heinrichs at the 2000 Olympics, as a major influence in her coaching education, said she expects her team to play a hybrid style based on adaptability.
“What’s most exciting about this group is, I think we have a group of very technical players, great athleticism and great mentality,” she said. “The style of play is one that’s a balance of aesthetics with efficiency, meaning when have to recognize when a vertical ball into a runner is on, and we also have to recognize when we just need to control the game, play into feet and build.”
It has become tougher for the U.S. to win on the international stage, evidenced in the fact that the Americans haven’t won a World Cup since 1999 despite being ranked No. 1 by FIFA for the past six years. Ellis knows that better than anyone, having studied the evolution of the women’s game in depth as part of her old role with the U.S.
“What I’ve said as part of the interview process is this team, any team now, kind of has to meet the demands of the modern game. Typically now, teams that maintain or control possession obviously have better chances of winning, which wasn’t always the case. I think our game has evolved so much that teams like Japan, France and Germany that value possession have been successful,” she said. “I think the women’s game has become the premier sport for many, many countries now. … There are not just resources, but there’s a culture of females playing. I grew up in England; women weren’t playing when I was living there.”
To meet those ever-increasing demands, Ellis said she wants players whose mental abilities complement their technical strengths.
“We’re going to value hard work. We’re going to value putting the players into an environment where they’re going to learn and grow,” she said. “I like to put players in challenging situations on the field where their brains are scratched. … There’s a balance for me of being a coach. You have to lead and inspire and instill confidence, and then you also have to get a group going in the same direction, so to speak. That’s what I love, actually, about coaching is how you navigate those waters.”
Ellis won’t have long to learn how to swim, as the pressure will be on her to get immediate results. Her first matches in charge will be against a French team quickly gaining on the traditional powerhouses of the women's game, in stateside friendlies June 14 and 19.
The CONCACAF championship, which doubles as the qualification tournament for the 2015 Women’s World Cup and will be held in the USA after initially being Mexico's tournament to host, kicks off in just five months. While most national team hires have a fair amount of time to establish a vision and long-term goals, Ellis won’t have that luxury.