Jill Ellis took her USWNT chance and won with it

Dan WetzelColumnist

Growing up on the South Coast of England, Jill Ellis longed for a life of soccer. She wanted to play like her brother did. She wanted to coach like her father did.

It seemed like a far-fetched dream. English girls were effectively shut out of the sport in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Technically, girls weren’t allowed to play on men’s federation grounds until 1971, but that was enough to keep youth teams from forming anywhere.

“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 watching her dad coach up a local squad, or catch Manchester United games on television.

In the early 1980s, however, the family moved to Fairfax, Virginia, and everything changed here in the land of Title IX empowerment. Ellis led her high school to a state championship and went on to become an All-American at George Mason. She eventually became the head coach at the University of Illinois and then UCLA.

In 2014, she was handed the keys to the kingdom, named head coach of the United States women’s national team, the deepest, most talented and best-funded program on the planet.

As always, she delivered, leading the U.S. to consecutive World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019. The only other coach to win two World Cups is Vitorio Pozzo of Italy, whose team won the men’s titles in 1934 and 1938.

Ellis posted an astounding 13-0-1 record in World Cup play, with her team outscoring opponents by a cumulative 40-6.

Jill Ellis never lost a World Cup match with the USWNT, and is only the second coach, man or woman, to deliver two world titles in history. (Getty)
Jill Ellis never lost a World Cup match with the USWNT, and is only the second coach, man or woman, to deliver two world titles in history. (Getty)

On Tuesday, Ellis announced she was stepping down as coach of the USWNT, a move that was expected by most around the federation. While there was a chance she would hang on and try to lead the Americans through the 2020 Olympics, avenging her only real setback from the 2016 games, the 52-year-old said now was the proper time.

She is 102-7-18 overall for her USWNT career, with a fall victory tour to come to pad those already-astounding numbers.

“This was the timeframe I envisioned,” Ellis said. “The timing is right to move on and the program is positioned to remain at the pinnacle of women’s soccer.”

Ellis was not always popular with her players. She wasn’t particularly charismatic with fans or media. What she was, however, was ruthlessly effective. Yes, she had the most and best talent, but that’s nothing new for the United States.

Managing great players amid all-or-bust expectations is not simple. There’s a reason the U.S. had never before won consecutive World Cups, let alone dominated the FIFA world rankings as they have.

What she leaves is a clear favorite headed into the Tokyo Olympics, the second-biggest event in women’s soccer. Her successor will likewise continue to enjoy a national youth system teeming with young girls trying to become American stars in the future, one more generation built on the legacy of the last.

There will be challenges ahead, though. The rest of the world, most notably European countries with soccer-rich traditions on the men’s side, have begun to invest heavily in the sport. That includes major professional clubs. The days of a Jill Ellis not getting to play in England are long gone.

That means not just greater competition ahead for the Americans, but competition against countries who have better systems – rooted in the youth academies of professional club teams – than the American one, that centers around pay-to-play travel clubs and the practice time-limited NCAA.

Jill Ellis wasn't allowed to play organized soccer until she moved to the United States. Once she took over the national team, she didn't allow anyone to beat them at the World Cup, either. (Associated Press)
Jill Ellis wasn't allowed to play organized soccer until she moved to the United States. Once she took over the national team, she didn't allow anyone to beat them at the World Cup, either. (Associated Press)

That’s someone else’s problem now. Ellis will stick with U.S. Soccer to serve as an ambassador of sorts, and then who knows? Maybe one day she coaches her native England. Maybe it’s another country. Maybe some rich American university throws a bunch of money at her. Maybe she just enjoys raising her family in South Florida.

For all the fan angst and chatter about why she employed this style or went with that starting lineup, she nearly always came out on top. She managed a diverse group of personalities and egos – Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan. She got veteran stars and precocious young players to buy into a team concept, even if it meant sitting on the bench.

Her one blemish, an overtime loss to Sweden in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, was more a matter of circumstance than anything else. Sweden famously played a defensive style (“cowards,” Solo called them) to force the game to penalty kicks. There the U.S. faltered, in part because Morgan, the Americans’ best goal scorer, was stopped.

Other than that, Ellis held it all together, winning and winning until there wasn’t much left to win.

All those years after she wasn’t allowed to play on a team, let alone coach one, Jill Ellis climbed to the top of the soccer world and wouldn’t be, or couldn’t be, knocked off.

“That’s really what America gave me,” Ellis 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.”

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