VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- During Jill Ellis' second year as head coach of the women's soccer program at UCLA, she was invited to the house of John Wooden, the legendary former UCLA men's basketball coach. Wooden was in his 90s by then, but he could still rattle off poetry from memory. But one conversation with the old master stuck with Ellis more than any other.
"I asked him, 'Coach, how do you handle the pressure?'" she recalled during a May interview. "He said, 'Well, if there's pressure on you, then it means you've done something to deserve the pressure. You've just got to embrace it.'"
Based on Ellis' performance during the Americans' run to the Women's World Cup championship, it's a lesson the U.S. coach took to heart. A little less than two weeks ago, the pressure on the Americans reached its peak. An underwhelming 2-0 victory over Colombia in the round of 16 highlighted the team's moribund attack. The United States only broke through in the second half after Colombia's goalkeeper had been issued a red card.
Yet Ellis dealt with the pressure surrounding her team and made some tactical tweaks that proved critical, and now the Americans are World Cup champions.
"I just knew that the players could deliver," she said Sunday after the U.S. women beat Japan 5-2 to win their first World Cup since 1999. "I said to them in the semifinal game, these players were born for big moments. This is what they relish. For me it's no surprise that as the teams get harder and the pressure gets bigger, this team gets better, because that's what they are about. That's how their DNA is. That's how they're engineered."
It's how Ellis, the daughter of a coach, is wired as well. She talked continually about constructing a bubble around her team, about minimizing distractions. On the one hand, it sounded like so much coach-speak. But it's evident from the performances of the players that belief in Ellis and the staff stayed constant, and perhaps even rose during the tournament.
"We had the faith in the coaching staff from Day 1," said Carli Lloyd, who had a hat trick in the final. "The first game, the second game, and on, we just stayed together. We stayed true to ourselves. We just executed the game plan each and every day, and we knew that we could do this. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to start out super strong. I think slow and steady wins the race."
Some might argue that Ellis' best moves were forced on her by circumstances rather than inspirational ideas. Inserting Julie Johnston into the lineup earlier in the year was the result of injuries to Christie Rampone and Whitney Engen. The decision to push Lloyd farther up into the attack in the quarterfinal against China didn't come about until yellow-card suspensions to Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe forced a tactical rethink.
But for the semifinal against Germany, there was absolutely nothing stopping Ellis had she wanted to revert to the same tactical approach used against Colombia. Ellis not only didn't go back, she doubled down on Lloyd as attacking midfielder by playing a 4-2-3-1, with Holiday sitting deep beside Morgan Brian. The switch proved devastatingly effective to opponents and was without question an inspired switch. Lloyd hit top form, as did the rest of the midfield. The move also required Ellis to sit legendary striker Abby Wambach.
"It's not easy to [sit] one of the most decorated goal scorers in the world," said Wambach without a hint of modesty. "But Jill and our coaching staff were confident, as was I, in the players who were starting ahead of me."
With the players' confidence peaking, the Americans were running downhill while their opponents seemed to be climbing Everest, culminating in a dominating final performance against Japan. Ellis could have taken the "I told you so" route postgame, but insisted she didn't feel that way.
"It's not vindication, validation," Ellis said. "It just feels really, really good. And I couldn't be more proud of this group of players and this staff. I knew they had it in them, they knew they had it in them, and I'm just so happy the world gets to see it."
The coach had it in her, too.