May 16, 2014
By Michael Lewis
For Ellis, it's World Cup or bust
Given the enormity of the task at hand, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati put the challenge facing new U.S. women's national coach Jill Ellis into eight simple words.
"The job description is to win next summer," he said.
Ellis, most recently the U.S. Soccer women's development director, took on that task on Friday as she was introduced as the eighth coach in the program's rich, three-decade history. She succeeds former Australian coach Tom Sermanni, who was fired last month because federation officials did not like the direction of the team.
So, it will be Ellis' charge to take the team to heights it has not visited since 1999 - winning the Women's World Cup. Since then the Americans, who are to women's soccer as Brazil is to the men's game, have fallen short of that lofty goal. They might have won three consecutive Olympic gold medals, but the U.S. has finished third (2003), third (2007) and second (2011).
Good for most countries, not good enough for the U.S. women, the only team to finish in the top three in every Women's World Cup and Olympic tournament since 1991 and 1996, respectively.
During a media conference call, Ellis said that she welcomed the opportunity and challenge.
"I know the expectation, embrace the expectation, know that we want to win," she said. "And I think this group is capable of winning. That's what we want. but it is always the expectation. People that have asked if that's something that is intimidating. I'm like, no, because when you work for U.S. soccer, it is about winning gold medasl and being on the first-place podium. For me, it's just a tremendous opportunity. I relish it."
Ellis, 47, had an opportunity to put her hat into the ring when the women's job opened up after Pia Sundhage left as coach in 2008, but she decided against it. She obviously had a change of mind over the past 18 months.
"Partly it was a personal and a timing issue for me," she said. "I had been involved with Pia in '08 and I worked for U.S. soccer since them. I still was at UCLA and I (had) just done double duty in two roles for a long time, then really focusing on my youth role, I just didn't really think the timing was right for me. Since then I actually moved and my personal life is a little bit different. I just recognized this was a unique opportunity. It just felt right. The energy is there."
Ellis brings coaching experience from every level of the U.S. women's program. She was an assistant on the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal-winning teams and served as interim head coach on two occasions, including the two most recent matches. Ellis begins her fulltime tenure with a 6-0-3 mark.
It certainly did not hurt that Ellis had coached all but two of the players at the youth or Under-20 level, everyone but defender Christie Rampone and striker Abby Wambach.
"My familiarity with the players is a huge plus for me because I have worked with these players in the youth (program)" she said. "I have seen the younger players who have come in and integrated with the veterans. So I have a really good feel for the players and they are in a real good environment right now. The focus for me will be about bringing in players and very quickly for me, the initial piece will be starting to establish a starting core and start to build relationship to get ready for qualifiers."
The CONCACAF qualifiers for the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada will be held in the United States in the fall, although no venues have been announced yet.
"After qualifiers and qualifying and then it's about looking and re-assessing again," Ellis said. "That's a normal process you go through once you get through qualifiers. Often, those rosters aren't the same for qualifiers and World Cup."
Ellis, who was born in Portsmouth, England before coming to the U.S. in 1981, was one of three final candidates for the job.Swedish native Tony Gustavsson, the coach of UEFA Women's Champions League finalist Tyreso and a former assistant with the U.S. women, was believed to have been one of the other finalists.
Gulati said the federation "didn't consider any of the NWSL (National Women's Soccer League) coaches. The thought of doing double duty or waiting for them to be available didn't make sense. In Jill, we have someone who knows our program, who has been extraordinarily successful and obviously coached the team very recently with success. I am very very confident in her abilities to lead the team forward. The marching orders are pretty straightforward from our perspective, from her own views and the team and that's success next summer in Canada and in Rio a year later."
In Rio, Gulati meant the 2016 Summer Olympics.
"We think Jill has all of the right credentials, in terms of experience, how she relates to the players, we've been able to see that first hand in the two times she has been with the senior team. And, obviously, previously with our youth teams," he said. "She gets top marks on what she's been doing on the technical side with all of our programs in the last several years. It's all of those things. It's ability, leadership, it's experience, it's success ... with the senior team."