Ellis hire makes sense for U.S. Soccer
Forty days after the surprise firing of Tom Sermanni, U.S Soccer president Sunil Gulati on Friday named Jill Ellis coach of the U.S. women's national team.
With the Women's World Cup a little more than a year away, Ellis was selected from a short list of candidates: Only Olympic and World Cup winning coach Tony DiCicco, Sweden's Tyreso FC head coach Tony Gustavsson, a former assistant to Pia Sundhage, and Ellis, U.S. Soccer's Development Director, were interviewed.
Ellis, 47, will finally be able to shed that interim title, having now served two stints as the interim U.S. coach, first in 2012 after Sundhage stepped down and since early April when Sermanni was let go after only 24 games (the U.S. women were 18-2-4 in that span).
For all the contemplation from the soccer community about who would be the next coach, Ellis was of course always on the short list, but also a question mark. First, would she even want the position?
In 2012, when the U.S. women's national team head coaching position opened up, Ellis pulled herself out of the race, as she wanted more time with her young daughter and family. I get it. She had been living at 30,000 feet for the past decade. Travel and airplanes lose their romantic qualities (quickly) when on them daily.
Ellis has been active at the national and international level for more than 15 years. She had an incredible 12-year run as UCLA's head coach, with a 229-45-14 record over that tenure, leading the team to eight College Cup appearances (soccer's version of the Final Four). Yes, eight during her 12 seasons in Westwood, but never winning a national title.
She also was an assistant coach during the USA's gold-medal runs in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Ellis coached U.S. soccer's team at the 2010 U-20 Women's World Cup, where the squad lost in the quarterfinals to Nigeria on penalty kicks. She has also coached many of the youth national teams and -- I am not done -- Ellis currently leads all of U.S. Soccer's player, team, camp and development initiatives as Development Director for the women's side.
So yes, she has the chops. That wasn't the question mark.
The question critics posed was can she get it done (read: win a World Cup)? Ultimately, U.S. Soccer was not convinced Sermanni could win back the World Cup for the United States in 2015. The U.S. women haven't won a World Cup since 1999, and 16 years are certainly not lost on U.S. Soccer, Gulati & Co. or the players.
So the remaining question is whether Ellis can turn her great pedigree into titles? And, needless to say, the most coveted title in the soccer world?
U.S. Soccer clearly believes she can. And I think it makes sense to hire someone from within the system with only one year to go before the Women's World Cup. Here are the other areas of strength for Ellis:
• Ellis is a players' manager. She has good instincts. She knows how to have the hard conversations, yet motivate and manage. That's a hard balance for coaches with such a deep team. And as every successful team in any sport will tell you, those hard conversations are a must.
• Ellis is familiar with the players, the systems they have played, the best formations and the younger players coming through the national teams. She will not need time to catch up. She is full throttle on Day 1. That's a big bonus with Women's World Cup qualifiers less than six months away. (Mind you, CONCACAF now gets 3.5 spots and Canada is already in as host, sooooo this is not the CONCACAF tournament pre-2011 Women's World Cup. But still ...).
The biggest test for Ellis will be how she manages the strong personalities. Let's be clear, strong personalities are nothing new to a U.S. women's team. The difference is this U.S. squad is as deep a team as the United States has ever had. And as Abby Wambach told me recently, "We, as players, all have to get comfortable sometimes with letting somebody else shine. Because gone are the days when those 11 players that play the best together are the ones that are gonna start for the entire time.
"I think that's where the next head coach comes in. The head coach is clear about the roles for those players."
If Ellis can get all players to understand their role, starter or non-starter, and most importantly, accept that role, this team will be successful. Ellis has proven she is a strong tactician -- she knows the game, she loves the game -- but ultimately, I don't think it is the X's and O's that will win a Women's World Cup for Team USA -- it is being fully committed to the common goal.
I believe Ellis can get them there. And when she does, the payoff is priceless: Wind them up and watch them dance.
The alternative, 20 years without a World Cup title, is unimaginable.