Why Jill Ellis Is The Right Coach To Help U.S. Women Reclaim World Cup
When she accepted a women's soccer head-coaching position at the University of Illinois that, at that moment in early 1997, existed in name only, Jill Ellis did not own a car with which to move to Champaign-Urbana. In an age before ubiquitous satellite navigation, that might have been just as well, given that her map since she moved to this country as a teenager had consisted primarily of a corridor that stretched no farther west than Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Beyond that, as old maps said of unknown lands, here be dragons. Or, at least in this case, cornfields.
These days, Ellis has a job title with the highest profile in international women's soccer: coach of the United States women's national team. If past performance is any indication, she will receive some measure of credit should the Americans win the World Cup for the first time this century, and a much larger share of the blame if the team fails to do so. But two years before the United States won its most famous -- and most recent -- world championship in a penalty shootout against China in the Rose Bowl, Ellis was a first-time head coach in charge of a college team few knew existed, in a place she struggled to place on a map.
It might be difficult to envision anyone in her current position in such surroundings, but the Ellis of nearly two decades past would remain recognizable. Unassuming now, disconcertingly so in a profession in which ego and aura are as much assets as liabilities, she exerted no greater gravitational force on even that small universe.
Erica Haas was a senior on the first varsity team at Illinois, a goalkeeper pulled in from the school's club soccer team to compete in the upper echelon of NCAA Division I.
"I never got the impression that she came in and was the largest person in the room, figuratively and literally," Haas recalled.
Still, the rooms in which Ellis stood kept getting larger and larger, at least proverbially, from Illinois to a run of NCAA College Cup appearances at UCLA, through various coaching and development roles with the national program and now a seat on the sideline that the television camera inevitably finds in moments good and bad, not that you can often tell from her expression. Something propelled her. Something made that move to Illinois a first step on the way to the World Cup instead of an excursion into oblivion.
Some of it is what she got the people in those rooms to do. Some of it is how she did that.
"I am a sensitive person," Ellis said. "If you ask my dad, I'm always the person that found the little bird out of the nest and is trying to put it back or take care of it. What I've always valued is people. When all is said and done, I always used to say this to recruits: 'I don't remember one goal I scored, I don't remember one result. I just remember the people that touched my life and that connected with me.'
"I think that always having that appreciation that the human element is the most important thing."
She just is one of these leaders that you know she's in charge, but it's not arrogant. I can't explain it. It's who I would want coaching my kid. You know she's in charge, and you know you respect her.Julie Shackford on friend and former teammate Jill Ellis
Any coach of the national team has at his or her disposal the luxury of the deepest talent pool in the world -- a pool admittedly diluted by the conflicted developmental nature of the college system and stop-and-start attempts to establish a domestic professional league, but Crater Lake-deep all the same. It is also a position with equally outsized challenges.
When Tom Sermanni was rather unceremoniously relieved of the position a year ago without ever coaching the United States in a major tournament, there was speculation as to the role that dissatisfaction within the ranks played in the move. Players and the public relations leviathan that is U.S. Soccer did their collective best to dismiss such rumblings, with enough poor results available to point to by way of explanation, but that it was even plausible for the athletes to wield that power spoke with equal volume.
A core of players weary of comparisons to the group that won the 1999 World Cup and captured a nation's attention are simultaneously, and not without merit, empowered by their role in recapturing that attention during the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics.
Ellis will have any number of decisions analyzed and tactics autopsied if the United States does not win in Canada (and plenty put out iceberg warnings ahead of time), from her management of minutes for Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan to the shape of her midfield and disinclination to employ a traditional holding midfielder to her team's creative abilities and dozens more. But as former United States coach Pia Sundhage made clear in a recent New York Times article that detailed the high-wire she felt she walked with some players, coaching some of the most talented, competitive and idiosyncratic people in the world is not merely a matter of moving chess pieces.
Sundhage succeeded by essentially outflanking the players, her methods so quirky as to disarm. Tony DiCicco, whom former U.S. legend Michelle Akers tweeted she would like to see coach the current team, is a quintessential alpha personality, the equal of any player. Ellis is neither. She is, as Akers went on to tell Sports Illustrated, "a nice person."
We all know where they supposedly finish.
"For me, meaning you connect doesn't mean you're a pushover," Ellis said. "To me, it's about understanding what will get the best out of Sydney Leroux. And to do that, and to know that, you kind of have to know a little bit about the fabric of a person."
Perhaps then to fully judge Ellis it is necessary to understand at least a little about her, about someone who spent much of her childhood in Cowplain, a village a short distance from Portsmouth on England's southern coast. One story she invariably tells when asked about those years is of going into the clubhouse with her dad, a coach, after games at a local field. The story always includes her memories of the lemonade and packet of crisps that were part of the ritual.
It is, of course, notable that the go-to tale doesn't involve her playing the game. She ran track and played field hockey and netball, a derivation of basketball that, like the others, was socially acceptable competition for girls, but the national obsession was different.
"She liked to play, but back in the late '70s, really, there was no girls' football; none of the girls played," said Paul Ellis, her older brother. "So when I used to go off to the park or used to have my friends over to the back of the house and used to have our little kick-around that kids do, she always wanted to be a part of that.
"Sometimes she was allowed to join in [by the others], and sometimes she wasn't allowed to join in."
She holds a very high standard for all of us, which makes us perform at that ultimate level that we all try to get to.U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath on coach Jill Ellis
Only when the family moved to the United States, sans Paul, who followed in his father's footsteps in the military, did she get the opportunity to play competitively, first at the club level in Virginia while in high school and then at the College of William & Mary, a power in the early days of NCAA-sponsored women's soccer.
Her on-field success in college aside -- she totaled 32 goals as a striker who showed the creativity that comes from learning the game in the backyard with a tennis ball -- those years offer insight into how she approaches the world. More inclined toward math and science when in school in England, where her brother said it was doubtful anyone in their station would have gone on to university at that time, she was put off by a high school biology teacher in the United States keen on pop quizzes and who she felt showed little patience for the kid "fresh off the boat." She ultimately earned her degree in English literature, a lifelong love of reading focused into a major by a particularly compelling professor, making her the rare coach conversant in the greatness of Steve Coppell and Brian Greenhoff, who played for the Manchester United teams she supported, and Dostoevsky, Wordsworth and Keats, who did not.
She was undoubtedly in the right place at the right time, whether that means the latter decades of the 20th century historically or the United States geographically, to overcome the barriers of gender and station that stood in her way athletically and academically. Still, as she knows, any goal scorer has to finish the chance provided. Competitiveness, fed by the connection she felt with people like her father, her brother and even that English professor, propelled her forward where others might have stalled.
When she finally took her first head-coaching position after years as an assistant at NC State, and with former national team standout April Heinrichs at Maryland and Virginia (before Heinrichs went on to coach the national team), Ellis persuaded others to follow her lead.
Although it didn't come with stadiums full of fans, television cameras and second-guessing on a national level, or even a local level at that stage, the job at Illinois was in some ways perfect preparation for her current position. Hired early in 1997, Ellis had to put together a team in a matter of months, just as she took over the national team a year ago far later than normal in the World Cup cycle. Most of the players who made up the first Illinois team came from the club program, which, however competitive it might have been, was not full of Division I athletes. She had to teach concepts otherwise taken for granted at that level, instill a winning mindset in the face of all evidence of what was likely to come and bridge the roster gap that mixed players happy to be there with a handful recruited to be there.
The team went 7-10-0. It was perhaps the only time in her soccer life she lost more than she won. And it was a smashing success, given the circumstances.
Haas didn't keep in touch with her coach over the years. They spent, after all, just that one season together, and as a goalkeeper, even that at something of a distance. Haas graduated, and a year later Ellis was gone, too, an offer from UCLA too good to pass up. Yet for the former player, now a major in the United States Air Force, that year and all it encompassed resonated in a way that, to borrow a line from Ellis, became a part of the fabric of who she is.
"I would have never imagined it at the time or realized it, but it actually was a pretty big influence on who I am today," Haas said of the experience on that team. "It was actually pretty formative for me, whether I knew it or not, in my leadership abilities and my leadership style and how I approach things, which is obviously very important in what I do today. I learned there are differences between personal and positional leadership and the importance of being a good follower when you are not the one in charge. I learned the importance of having a clear vision and a message and communicating it to your team.
"And something as simple as resilience -- we won some games, we got pounded some games, but how you pick yourself up after things don't go your way and then make it better the next time."
At the end of that season, Haas received the first Jeremy L. Daly Award. While still in Virginia, Ellis got to know Daly, a boy who had a form of retinitis pigmentosa that was gradually causing him to lose both his hearing and eyesight but who tagged along with her much the same way she had tagged along with her older brother, never long deterred by what he was told he couldn't do. Tragically, still only a teenager, Daly was killed in a car accident.
"He just had such a profound impact on me," Ellis said. "This kid, there was nothing he didn't try, nothing he didn't want to do. I would have conversations with him about what he was dealing with, and he was just kind of an old soul."
She promised herself that when or if she took over a program of her own, she would create an award in his honor for the player who best exemplified, in her words, "what it means to be a good human being." Rather than follow a coach's itinerant life, she felt it needed a permanent home, so upon leaving Illinois, she asked her successor to keep it. To this day, two coaches removed, the Illini continue to honor a winner each season.
It is partly such basic decency that makes Ellis a puzzle. To describe a coach as contemplative or decent almost feels like describing a race car driver as sarcastic or hygienic.
What does one have to do with the other?
"She is very nice and she is very selfless and she is very passionate about people, but she's not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination," said Julie Shackford, a friend and former club and college teammate who recently stepped down after 20 years as women's soccer coach at Princeton. "She just is one of these leaders that you know she's in charge, but it's not arrogant. I can't explain it. It's who I would want coaching my kid. You know she's in charge, and you know you respect her.
"She takes what she does seriously, but she's not taking herself so seriously."
That Ellis is able to live a life in soccer without it defining her makes it easy to question whether she really sought her current role or accepted it because it isn't the kind of job a person turns down. But she and those close to her insist it is a challenge she sought and that this was the right time for the job to match her strengths. She has ties to players that go back more than a decade, even before her time as an assistant coach on the 2008 Olympic team to college recruiting or Nordic Cups with the under-21 national team.
"She knows the personnel so well," midfielder Tobin Heath said. "She knows what to expect from all the players, she knows the level of all the players, which is awesome. But I also think that she's at the stage where tactically she's able to adjust to the game. She has the players to be able to adjust to different opponents, different situations. She's also a coach that demands performance from her players. I think she holds a very high standard for all of us, which makes us perform at that ultimate level that we all try to get to."
It is the level that Ellis is still trying to reach, too. Her coaching story isn't complete without that fact that she both appeared in eight College Cups at UCLA, including seven consecutively with a program that had never been before she arrived, and fell short of the championship each time. It can't be told without mention of the 2010 Under-20 Women's World Cup, when a team that included Leroux drew against Ghana in group play and exited shockingly in the quarterfinals against Nigeria. All of that is part of her record, all of it evidence to some that she is the wrong choice to try to break the World Cup drought when competition around the globe gets stronger by the year.
To prove them wrong, to solve Germany, Japan, France or any of the other obstacles that could stand in the way of a title, will take all the tactical acumen she has accrued from her father, her brother, her mentors, the coaches with whom she has surrounded herself and her own instincts. It will also mean getting the best out of all the people in the room.
"I've never been a CEO, but I don't care if you're an English professor teaching a class or you're a coach, you've got to connect with people," Ellis said. "Even in this [national team] environment, whether it's having individual meetings, whether it's asking about a player, whether it's trying to have a consciousness and understanding of what they're dealing with, I think that's important because, sure, they're phenomenal athletes, but they're people. That's always been something that is a part of who I am."
She knows, too, that everyone remembers the results in this competition, that the final score is ultimately the only arbiter of job performance for the coach of the United States women's national team. Unlike when she made her way to Illinois, she knew exactly what she signed on for this time. She believes she is the right person to do it.