Lily Stephenson-Ellis couldn't stand it. Her mom, Jill Ellis, had shared a huge secret, and Lily couldn't wait to spill the beans.
"I am going to pop, mama, I am just going to pop," Lily declared. "I want to tell my class!"
Trouble is, the rest of the soccer world needed to find out first. So Lily had to wait one whole day before she could fill in her third-grade classmates that her mom was the newest head coach for the U.S. women's soccer national team.
"She had to hold onto it, but she's so excited," Jill Ellis said about her 9-year-old daughter's reaction to the news.
With just more than a year before the 2015 Women's World Cup, it's indeed an exciting time for the U.S. women's team. The program is on its second head coach since early 2013, and Ellis understands the need to get it right -- and quickly.
Ellis and I spoke immediately following U.S. Soccer's news conference introducing her as the squad's head coach. We talked about expectations, changes she plans to make, Alex Morgan's injury, switching to a 4-3-3 formation and the one thing the U.S. women must do to win their first World Cup title since 1999.
Ellis, who was an assistant coach on the U.S. women's 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning squads, has twice served as the U.S. national team's interim head coach and takes over the squad with a 6-0-3 all-time record. Ellis served as UCLA's head coach from 1999-2010, leading the Bruins to eight appearances in the College Cup (college soccer's version of the Final Four). In January 2011, she was hired as U.S. Soccer's women's development director.
Q&A with Ellis
Q: In 2012 you pulled out of the race for the head coaching position for the U.S. women's national team because you wanted more time at home. What was different this time around?
A: I've had time since 2012 to decompress. It was a long road from 2008 to basically until I took the full-time job with U.S. Soccer. They were obviously wonderful opportunities, but I had two roles, at U.S. Soccer and UCLA, so that was kind of a grind. But since then, I moved to Miami, and it's a good situation. My parents are closer, so it allows me more flexibility with my schedule.
Q: What are you most excited about with this team?
A: I truly believe this group of women are primed and locked on the desire to win a World Cup. They seem to have a very common goal. For many of them, it came so close in 2011, so there's that recommitment and refocus. I'm most excited about the opportunity to have this team get in a new position to be able to bring a world championship back to the U.S.
Q: What is this team's biggest strength?
A: The diversity of the players. We've got a lot more technical players on the field. It's going to allow us to play from back to front, through thirds, and really break down teams with movement and precision passing. It's also the level of athleticism with technique. That's the home run, right? The technical athlete is the home run, and I think we have a lot of phenomenal pieces. That's a strength. And as I always think with this group, the mentality is a strength.
Q: What is the team's biggest challenge in this next year before the Women's World Cup?
A: Between now and qualifiers, there won't be a whole lot of time together. The connection on the field is going to be the biggest focus, understanding what's expected of players. In the modern day, it's not really about just playing position, it's about playing, filling spaces and filling a role. So the challenge is to give the players the space to be creative but also understand the expectation of their position.
Q: If this team needs to get one thing right to win the Women's World Cup, what is it?
A: I always go back to the game. I think about the 2011 World Cup. And I think about games I've been involved in. Ultimately, finishing chances inside of 10-12 yards is the difference between winning a world championship and not. Now, there's a whole lot of layers in there with organization and tactics and fitness and all those other components. But I truly believe a team that's going to win is going to have to put its chances away. It is about scoring goals and preventing goals. It's that simple to me. What do we have to get right? When we have opportunities inside 6 yards and inside 10 yards, we've got to have a higher percentage of finishing.
Q: If you need to get one thing right to win the Women's World Cup, what is it?
A: I think it's balancing giving this team communication, information and confidence. I think this team thrives in a positive environment, so that will be a priority for me, but also a realistic environment. For me, it would be making sure they are prepared, and in their preparation making sure they have confidence and the encouragement to go out and perform on the big stage in the big moment.
Q: Do you intend to play a different formation than the 4-4-2 that Tom Sermanni used?
A: I've only had three or four days with the team, but my initial response is yes. When you've got the arsenal of weapons [we have], with some of our attacking personalities and our midfield core, I definitely think we can have three central players with mobility and good possession there, and I think we can have three forwards. We need to be able to press opponents, but I think more importantly, we must be able to break teams down with movement and runs to penetrate in behind, not just from a long pass but a pass on the ground. I definitely think a 4-3-3 would be a very good system for this team to play. Having said that, I also think we have to have flexibility.
Q: How concerned are you about Alex Morgan's ankle and the time it's taking her to return?
A: The latest update is that she's not in contact [drills] but she's doing ball work, she's training, she's in with the team. Those are big positives. She's a big, big, big piece of the puzzle. I feel very encouraged and positive that Alex will be joining us soon. I can't put a deadline on it. it's a step in the right direction that she's now training, so I'm excited that she's going to be able to play.
Q: How are you approaching the position with just one year until the Women's World Cup?
A: I think it would behoove me to add depth. There's a phenomenal base and if we can deepen some positions and maybe bring some new players in who have done very well and have those core attributes that I do like -- players who can pass and receive and have a good soccer IQ are very intriguing to me. I think the priority will be to strength or deepen where I think we need to add more personnel.
Q: How do you manage a group as talented as this team and keep all the players happy?
A: I always stay true to what I believe. And what I believe is that you have to always be honest and you have to always do what's best for the team. Those are kind of my guiding principles. So I can always sleep at night if I know my decision is what I think is best for the team and that I've explained to that a player. I'm realistic to know that sometimes the message will not be well-received. But I also think there's a respect in knowing you're getting information straight to you and very direct. When I think it's great, they'll hear it's great. Coaching is walking that line between throwing an arm around a player and then giving them that push when they need it. And that's my style.
Q: You've coached all but two of the players on the team (Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone). Does that help or hurt in these sort of conversations?
A: Listen, a lot of this will fall back on the players. You don't get to this level by taking things for granted. You always have to prove yourself. When there's a coaching change, some of the players have to hit reset because they have to now prove themselves again. But that's part of their amazing qualities; they're there and they've sustained it because they are used to that. They've had Greg [Ryan], Pia [Sundhage], Tom and myself. There hasn't been a whole lot of time for complacency in the sense of feeling comfortable.
Q: How do you get players to understand and appreciate their role if they are not getting minutes?
A: They have to understand. That's the reality of it. It's not soft-selling it and saying you're going to enjoy this and agree with this. The reality is there's only so many spots. I don't think I have an issue saying to a player, "Hey listen, you can improve on this, this and this, but right now, the performance of this player is the selection that's going to happen." If you're honest, there's really no way of sugarcoating it. it's a part of professional environments and a part of athletics in general.
Q: Do you intend to play many different lineups as Sermanni did during his tenure?
A: No. Certainly as things present themselves, with injuries and such and looking at players and evaluations, there might be some changes from game to game. But overall, the thing I learned is that minutes together and partnerships are really important, whether it's down the spine, or your two center backs or two central stabilizing midfielders. I think especially in the 4-3-3, the relationship between the outside back and the wide forward is critical. So trying to get players fairly quickly comfortable with the person and the tendencies of the person they're playing next to will be important for me.
Q: How much pressure do you and the team feel to win it all, given that the U.S. women haven't won a World Cup since 1999?
A: It's a little bit of semantics for me. I think pressure is this fear of failing. I look at it as an opportunity to be successful. Pressure is playing as if you've got something to lose. This team doesn't have anything to lose. They have everything to go for. And attack. And I think there would be so much pride to bring a World Cup [title] home to this country. I don't think it's a matter of pressure. That's part of my job -- with the environment and staff and structure around them is to recognize this as an opportunity to be successful.
Q: Are you bringing in your own staff or keeping things as is?
A: I'll be honest. Obviously this past week has been a lot of thoughts and mainly focusing on where I'm at. I think I'll just have to push pause, give some thought to that and then really look at what I think this team needs around them to be successful moving forward. Obviously they've had great success. But I think that's a thought I will probably marinate over in the next few days.