Q&A With Jill Ellis: What's Next For The U.S. Women's National Team?
At this week's espnW: Women + Sports Summit, United States women's national team coach Jill Ellis spoke about the path her team followed to win the World Cup this past summer and what she took away from the experience. But as much as people still want to hear the stories from Canada, she is well aware that the clock ticks on toward next summer's Olympics, qualification willing in February, and even the 2019 World Cup in France.
The United States won the World Cup with the oldest roster in the field, meaning that while there will be many familiar faces should the team qualify for Brazil next summer, young players need to emerge to prevent the success earned in 2015 from settling into the kind of doldrums that followed in the years after the 1999 title.
Ellis also spoke with espnW about the future, both short and long term, for the national team as it continues its victory tour and prepares for Olympic qualifying.
I think the attacking players will have the most competition. ... That's going to be, consistently, an area where players will need to prove themselves. We're obviously not as deep right now at the center mid or the center back position.Jill Ellis on competition to make the USWNT Olympics roster
Q: What is the evaluation process you go through in deciding which players to call in for December games and the subsequent training camp?
A: It's about assessing what we have and determining what we need. We lose one starter from the World Cup final, so we have a lot returning. But as the current players understand, it's an ongoing process of evaluation. What stuck with me from the World Cup was that for five players this was their first major event, so the Olympics can be a great opportunity to get more players world-class competition prior to the next World Cup.
In terms of looking at players, we must look at all areas -- youth national teams, NWSL, overseas, college. All these platforms will be scouted. The beauty of having my Under-23, Under-20 and Under-17 coaches with me in Canada was they had a firsthand look at the environment. So when we all can agree on what qualities are needed, it makes the evaluation process more streamlined.
Q: What is the balance in the next few months between preparing for Olympic qualifying and evaluating players with an eye beyond 2016?
A: Great question. Priority one is to qualify. These next few months will determine the selection of players that can accomplish that and beyond. I use the word balance because that is the key, looking beyond the Olympics but also not discounting the importance of experience in the pressure cooker. Our roster has to be different -- less players, players retiring and so forth. The players currently in know that just as they had to compete for a World Cup spot, now the process starts again.
Q: What are your priorities when it comes to thinking about roster construction for 2019?
A: Depth at all positions is very important, and then making sure that the pool of players has some experience at the senior level between now and then. In four years, the game will be much further along, so we need to make sure we're at the forefront of that progression.
Q: Where is the greatest competition to make the roster for the Olympics?
A: I think the attacking players will have the most competition. Numerically, we still have a lot of depth in our attacking players, so I think that's going to be, consistently, an area where players will need to prove themselves. We're obviously not as deep right now at the center mid or the center back position, but I think it will be very competitive to make this roster with our wide players and our central attacking players.
Q: What are you looking for from midfield candidates as you move on without Lauren Holiday?
A: The reason Lauren was such a special player was because she had multiple tools and the intangibles. A center mid on this team must be able to solve pressure and have great range in her passing. She's got to possess a high IQ about the game and be prepared to cover the ground on both sides of the ball. And I guess the final piece for every player trying to make this team is they've got to have a competitive edge.
Q: Who are some of those midfielders you would like time to evaluate in the national team setting?
A: My immediate focus is some of the players that can fill our needs and to invite players that I've not yet had in camp. Danielle Colaprico had a good season [with the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars], Christine Nairn was an impactful player to [the Washington Spirit] and there are a couple of players in our youth teams that have done very well.
Q: Where would Colaprico fit in terms of how you want a team to play?
A: Dani has a lot of good attributes, and I'm interested in taking a look at her. The speed of play in our environment is so much faster, so dealing with that would be critical. And then I'd like to see her ability to open the game. up. With many teams sitting in on us, we need a center mid that, more than simply playing 7- to 10-yard balls, must be able to switch the point with a 45-yard pass under pressure. She'll not be able to attend this next camp because of injury but our intention is to evaluate her in our environment.
Q: Will we see some college players among those called in over the next few months?
A: We'll definitely be taking a look at some of the top college players. Positionally, we're looking at a center back out of Virginia, Emily Sonnett, and a center mid from Wisconsin, Rose Lavelle. And Mallory Pugh [who will be a freshman at UCLA in 2016] is one of our brightest youth national team players, so she is most certainly on the radar.
Q: Where is Lavelle, physically and tactically, in the transition from the U-20 level to presumably the senior level?
A: Rose impressed me at the U-20 World Cup in Canada. She's an intriguing player because the game slows down for her. She solves situations with her brain. The challenge for young players is always stepping into the next level, in terms of how much faster the game is. I don't necessarily focus on the stature of the player, more their durability and strength to hold players off. I think Rose has those physical qualities in college, and now I want to see her at our level.
Q: Who are the candidates for the next generation of USWNT goalkeepers?
A: [University of Texas senior Abby] Smith and [Stanford University junior Jane] Campbell are currently in with our Under-23 team and [Adrianna] Franch is playing in Europe. Those three are probably our most experienced international keepers at the younger ages.