Jill Ellis has played multiple roles in soccer – she is an ambassador of the sport for the United States of America’s soccer federation, the president of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side San Diego FC and even the lead advisor to FIFA on the future of women’s soccer.
But the most significant stint has been winning consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cups with the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) as head coach, in 2015 and 2019, respectively.
She is only the second coach in soccer to do so, after Vittorio Pozzo who did it with the Italian men’s team, in 1934 and 1938.
However, the Midas of the USWNT did not begin her career as a coach initially.
With an undergraduate degree in English literature from William and Mary and a Master’s degree in technical writing from North Carolina State, she was working with a telecom company.
But in 1994, she became an assistant soccer coach in Maryland, leaving her mother ‘horrified’. According to her father, John, her annual salary dropped from $30,000-$40,000 to $8,000.
Jill, however, has not looked back since.
From college soccer, she moved into the US women’s national side in 2000, finally becoming the head coach in 2014.
“I was very fortunate because I got to be Pia Sundhage’s assistant, I got to see up close and personal, the inner workings, the expectation and the intensity of just that environment.
So, when I took over, I wasn’t really blind. I kind of had a clear vision of what it that we needed to do, in terms of pursuing another World Cup. It starts and stops you – you got to have talent, good preparation and good staff. It’s like when you build out a blueprint,” she adds.
Sundhage has been one of the greatest women’s football coaches, winning two Olympic gold medals with the USWNT and most recently, the Copa America Femenina with Brazil, last year.
As the team struggled for form after the Swede and then Tom Sermanni’s exits in 2014, Ellis did not just stabilise the ship but also steered it to World Cup victory within three months of taking charge as a full-time head coach.
The 2019 World Cup glory
Ellis has had her share of controversies, the most prominent being the termination of World Cup winner Hope Solo’s national team contract after she called Sundhage’s Sweden ‘cowards’, following a loss in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympic games.
“You’ve really got to strike the balance of the youth and that coming forward with the experience and I think we struck that balance just right in 2019.”Jill on the 2019 World Cup victory
But the 56-year-old decided to look ahead almost immediately, keeping the 2019 World Cup in mind.
“We really had to diversify our talent pool, (in terms of) the profiles of our players. I wanted to make sure that we built a team that could deal with teams that could drop off and give us very little space between the lines,” she says.
“So, when we started to refocus on 2019, it was the idea of deepening our roster was kind of the critical mass and that’s where players like Rose Lavelle and Sammy (Samatha) Mewis stepped into bigger roles.”
Ellis replaced veteran Christie Rampone, the last remaining link from the World Cup class of ‘99, with Julie Ertz at the centre-back position and Lindsey Horan, who had prospered as a striker at Paris Saint-Germain, became a midfielder in international colours.
It was under her tutelage that Mallory Swanson and Andi Sullivan prospered to become mainstays in the national team.
“Talent doesn’t have an age. So, one of the things that I would do when the young players would come in is tell them to go and meet with the veterans and listen to this, their scars because ultimately, these players are coming in and playing with their heroes,” Ellis says.
“They have to learn that they didn’t just fall on top of the mountain, they had to grind, work, and cover some injuries to get there.”
Ellis’ World Cup squad in 2019 had 11 players making their debut in the tournament in the 23-women group.
“When you build a team like that, what I learned is you can’t have a team with every player under 30 caps and a team with every player over 200 caps,” she says.
“You’ve really got to strike the balance of the youth and that coming forward with the experience and I think we struck that balance just right in 2019. That was a big part of it.”
Mental health is everything
April Heinrichs, the captain of the USWNT which won its maiden World Cup in 1991, had once said that Ellis is a coach who ‘can put an arm around a player and make a tight situation relaxed.’
Ellis proved true to that reputation by successfully defending the World Cup and still maintains mental health is ‘everything’ in soccer.
“It’s two-fold – mentality and mental health. I’ve always said to win the World Cup, you gotta have the trifecta – athleticism, mentality and technique. I think the US has that in abundance. In terms of mental health, I think when you go in and manage players, it’s everything,” she says.
“I think part of (being) a coach is, ultimately when they go into that pressure cooker of a final, you’ve got to make them feel that they are prepared,” she adds. “That gives them immense confidence that they’re invincible.”
She recalls a moment in the World Cup when she was sitting in the dugout before a match and she noticed that the players were looking for their family members in the crowd.
“We were like, ‘Ok, boom! We would tell them here’s where your family’s going to be,” she says, explaining how that helps the players control stress in high-pressure games.
“The other part is you have got to maintain a steady beat so that your players understand that you’re not getting sidetracked by the emotion of the moment,” she adds.
Enough firepower for 2023
The United States will go into the Women’s World Cup 2023 looking for a hat-trick of world titles. The team has chosen youth over experience this time, with head coach Vlatko Andonovski selecting only nine of the 23 players from the 2019 squad.
“It’s a process every coach goes through – what do you need in terms of experience, how do you balance that, and how is the game evolving such that you cannot just meet the demands of the game but actually exploit them,” Ellis says.
“I think that the squad that we’ve got together again has that – framework of youth and experience.”
The two-time World Cup-winning coach believes the USWNT has enough firepower to go the distance.
Though the team will have veterans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe in attack, one of the most important players to watch out for in the tournament will be Sophia Smith.
“I always say that I don’t think there is a team in the world that has the attacking prowess that the US has always seemed to amass,” she says, “At the end of the day, you sure will not want to give up goals, but you got to score them and I think we’ve got a lot of firepower in that in that regard.”
Ellis is now a U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer but her stint as a coach of the USWNT is over. For the first time in 23 years, Ellis will not be part of the US contingent.
The USWNT – under Andonovski – starts its World Cup defence against Vietnam on July 22, playing Netherlands and Portugal next, on July 27 and August 1, respectively.
It took the United States 16 years and four head coaches to reclaim the World Cup after Tony DiCicco’s side won the trophy in 1999.
As the side takes the field this time, it will be interesting to see how the most successful team in the history of the tournament performs in the FIFA World Cup 2023.
- IND vs ENG, 4th Test: Ashwin overtakes Kumble for most wickets in Tests in India
- Ranji Trophy quarterfinal: Tamil Nadu eliminates defending champion Saurashtra to enter semis
- Pramod, Yathiraj and Krishna win gold medals at Para Badminton World Championships
- Los Cabos Open 2024: Thompson downs Ruud to win maiden ATP crown
- Ranji Trophy Highlights 2024 Quarterfinals Day 3 Updates: TN beats Saurashtra by an innings; Andhra closes in on win vs MP