Jill Ellis taking her shot with U.S.
The interim tag may be firmly affixed to Jill Ellis, but with the U.S. women's national team set to take on rival Canada in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on Thursday, she's going about her business as if she plans to be around for a while.
Ellis has been in charge of the U.S. women on an interim basis for just over a month following the surprising dismissal of Tom Sermanni. Since overseeing the team's 3-0 friendly win over China on April 10, she's hardly been taking it easy.
"I think immediately when [the United States Soccer Federation] asked me to do it, I told the administration I would function as a head coach -- organizing the scouting, going out and watching NWSL games," she said via telephone. "I really think the train has to keep moving."
It's an approach that she no doubt hopes will impress USSF president Sunil Gulati. The previous time the job was available, following Pia Sundhage's resignation after the 2012 Olympics, Ellis took herself out of the running. That isn't the case this time. While Ellis declined to get into specifics, she said: "I have had conversations with [the USSF], and I'm definitely interested in the position."
Ellis' work as youth technical director, as well as with various youth teams, makes her a known commodity to the USSF, so it would be a stretch to say the outcome of Thursday's match will have a huge impact on her prospects of securing the job full time. But getting a victory won't do her any harm.
At this point, Ellis' competition is confined to less than a handful of names. SoccerWire.com reported that former U.S. assistant and current Tyreso FF manager Tony Gustavsson is on the short list. In an email to espnW, Gustavsson would only say that he was "100 percent focused" on the UEFA Women's Champions League final set to take place May 22 between Tyreso and Wolfsburg. As for other candidates, a source confirmed to espnW that former U.S. manager Tony DiCicco has also interviewed for the position.
It's all the more reason for Ellis to move quickly to put her imprint on the team. She indicated that she plans to use a 4-3-3 formation that will take an aggressive approach and press teams higher up the field. Ellis will have had only three training sessions with the team prior to the Canada match, but that hasn't stopped her from getting into the finer details of how she wants the U.S. to play.
"Little things that I've emphasized are turning in pockets and looking to penetrate and finding these spaces and playing at a good tempo when we're in the middle third," she said. "We have to be disciplined to play two-touch, to have accountability defensively; things that I'm sure have been emphasized, but that I think are important as we prepare for Canada."
Ellis has also continued the search for new players, one that started under Sermanni. Uncapped players Allie Long and Nikki Marshall both have been called in for the Canada match.
"I just think we need depth in the back, certainly," Ellis said. "We've got some coverage now, but we need naturally left-footed players, and depth centrally in the back as well."
Then there is the dilemma surrounding the holding midfielder position. It was a role filled for years by Shannon Boxx, who is in the process of coming back after giving birth to her first child earlier this year. But Ellis is also looking at Lauren Holiday, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Morgan Brian and Julie Johnston to fill the three midfield spots.
"They're all really talented, creative, attacking players," Ellis said. "Then the question is: Do you want to sit one of those deeper when they are so valuable getting higher? Obviously, Boxx will be coming back, but I think depth is needed at that position also. I think Brian could grow into it, but I think most people have seen her in the final third, and she's crazy good."
Without question, it's a tricky decision. Ellis is hoping the USSF trusts her to make that choice.
• One player not taking part in Thursday's match will be striker Alex Morgan, who suffered a sprained left ankle in October that morphed into a stress reaction. But Ellis indicated the reports regarding Morgan's rehab are encouraging.
"She's in a cycle of returning," Ellis said of Morgan. "The good thing is she is continuing to move forward with her recovery, but it's kind of wait and see. [Women's World Cup] qualifying is five, six months away, so we've got to get this right."
• The 2015 Women's World Cup will see the field expanded to 24 teams. Given that there is a pretty steep drop in quality after the top 12 teams or so, there are concerns that the tournament could see some blowouts. It's a thought that Ellis admitted had crossed her mind, but she sees the benefits as well.
"There probably will be some lopsided matches," she said. "But as FIFA has explained to me, that's what you have to have to get growth. Now these teams are getting opportunities, and with opportunities those federations see that and are prepared to back them financially. It makes sense for the game. Will there be some [lopsided] scores? Possibly. But more countries are recognizing that this is the world's game for women."
• Regardless of who is hired as coach, Ellis said that it's important that an extended training camp be held shortly after the NWSL regular season ends in August in order to properly prepare for World Cup qualifying. The qualifying tournament will be held in Mexico in October, and the expanded field at the World Cup means that the top three finishers will automatically earn World Cup spots, while the fourth-place finisher will go to a playoff against a team from South America.
That would seem to give the U.S. an immense amount of wiggle room, especially because Canada, as host of the 2015 World Cup, has already qualified. But Ellis is taking nothing for granted. After all, the U.S. was forced to go to a playoff against Italy in order to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. An extended camp will give whomever is the coach a better indication of who is capable of contributing.
"You would almost, as soon as some NWSL teams are knocked out of playoff contention, start having a camp to try to truly vet players and see them in this environment more than two or three days," she said. "It's easy for a player to stand out in two or three days. But the grind of a camp, and just the level of consistency in performance that requires, that needs to happen."