Jill Ellis coaching USWNT against the country that wouldn't let her play

Dan WetzelColumnist

LYON, France — Jill Ellis wanted to play. Of course she wanted to play. Her father coached soccer. Her brother played soccer. The entire family would gather around the television and watch soccer — she was an “all in” for Manchester United, she said.

She couldn’t play though. Not organized soccer. This was the 1960s and she was a little girl on the South Coast of England. Females were essentially banned from playing in England (technically, they weren’t allowed to play on men’s federation grounds until 1971, but that was enough to snuff the game out).

“I had zero opportunity to play football over the years,” Ellis said.

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All she had was “playing with the boys in the schoolyard, with my brother in the backyard,” she said. All she had was wondering what could have been.

On Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET Jill Ellis, now the head coach of the United States women’s soccer team, will match up in the World Cup semifinal against her native England, the country that robbed her youth of the sport to which she’s dedicated her life.

Yes, that was a long time ago. No, the people involved aren’t the same. Yes, England has come a long, long way — its team is now a legitimate global power.

But still … the coincidence and significance of the match-up, played against her personal history, can’t be lost on anyone.

Well, on Sunday at least, Ellis chose not to make this about her, her past or into any kind of an old revenge game — with Ellis at the helm of a juggernaut. Maybe human nature wins out in public, but at this point, it was just about preparing her team.

The U.S. team.

“She’s 100 percent American now,” forward Alex Morgan said.

Jill Ellis wasn't allowed to pursue a playing career in England. Instead, she did so in America, and is now leading the top-ranked team in the world. (Getty)
Jill Ellis wasn't allowed to pursue a playing career in England. Instead, she did so in America, and is now leading the top-ranked team in the world. (Getty)

The Ellis family eventually moved to the United States where, free to play, Jill led her high school in Fairfax, Virginia to a 1984 state championship and became a third-team All American at William & Mary. She then followed her dad into coaching, eventually leading the University of Illinois, then UCLA and since 2014, the USWNT.

She boasts an 11-0-1 career World Cup record, including the 2015 title. She’s two more away from another.

She’s come a long way. So has the sport. There’s still more to go, of course.

Ellis is the No. 1 coach in the world. Yet according to fiscal 2017 tax filings, the most recent available for U.S. Soccer, Ellis was paid just $292,151 in total compensation. By comparison, men’s coach Bruce Arena earned $400,000 for just four months’ work and men’s assistant Andres Herzog made $446,885. (Former men’s head coach, Jurgen Klinsman, received a $3.275 million settlement that year upon getting fired.)

Ellis signed a new contract since, presumably richer, although details aren’t yet known. The pay scale part is the decision of U.S. Soccer, of course. Some of it is a biproduct of the marketplace — unlike with men’s coaches, there aren’t any wealthy bidders from top pro women’s leagues, college programs or national clubs to drive up demand. Ellis has almost nowhere to go.

Much of that is because so many European countries wouldn’t allow girls such as Ellis to play all those years. England lifted its ban about the same time as Germany and others finally took the game out of the shadows. Even then, while the U.S. was beginning to invest in women’s sports due to Title IX, the rest of the world mostly ignored it.

To this day, this event, the World Cup, suffers. It’s made up ground in terms of quality of play, but it’s eons behind men's soccer in audience, revenue and commitment from FIFA. As such, so are salaries. So is everything.

Jill Scott (8) and England have become a power in women's soccer, one that Jill Ellis never had a chance to be part of. (Getty)
Jill Scott (8) and England have become a power in women's soccer, one that Jill Ellis never had a chance to be part of. (Getty)

It’s those old prejudices still impacting Jill Ellis.

At least, she got to the United States when she did.

“That’s really what America gave me,” she said. “An environment to put on my first ever team uniform in terms of soccer. I always loved the sport and now it just kind of gave me a vehicle to kind of really experience it even more.

“I never thought I’d end up coaching it,” she continued. “Wasn’t the plan. And then I think just the passion — you find out you love what you do. That’s kind of what I decided to do in terms of shifting careers.”

She’s an American now. England is in the past, a past that, at least publicly in the run-up to the game, she’d rather think back on fondly.

She received a question Sunday from a reporter from the Daily Mail, a classic British working class tabloid.

“Now that [newspaper] I used to read a lot,” she said with a smile. “The Telegraph was a bit expensive for me.”

“Still a great value, Jill,” the reporter cracked.

She laughed at the British wit. This was no time to be bitter.

“Yeah, England is,” she said, before pausing, “... I have a lot of fond memories. I was a Pompey [Portsmouth] lass — I can’t say I supported Pompey all the time. I was a Man United fan since I was seven. But yeah, a lot of fond memories, a lot of great people, spent many, many summers up in Edinburgh. So my whole British culture in growing up, still I think is with me for sure. And I’m very grateful for that.

“Because I don’t think had I grown up in another country that maybe the passion for football would be where it is and where it was.”

England wouldn’t let her play. But it led her to where she is anyway, she figures.

All eyes on Tuesday, for Jill Ellis. All eyes on the future.

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