REIMS, France — The U.S. women’s national soccer team humming through the World Cup is notable for boundless depth, waves of first-class forwards and hearty experience. There are famous players, rising figures and an unapologetic swagger that irks opponents.
But behind the scenes — quietly, firmly and armed with a dry sense of humor while her band stacks up goals, victories and endorsements — Coach Jill Ellis has helped define the world’s top-ranked team.
In charge since May 2014 — and, before that, for two interim stints — Ellis will equal April Heinrichs’s program record for matches coached (124) on Monday when the Americans play Spain in the round of 16.
She is the only woman to guide the United States to a World Cup title; the previous winners were Anson Dorrance (1991) and the late Tony DiCicco (1999). If she were to repeat the feat July 7 in Lyon, Ellis would become the first person to coach a men’s or women’s team to two World Cup crowns since Vittorio Pozzo led the Italian men to glory in 1934 and 1938.
It’s a delicate situation, though, because expectations surrounding the U.S. juggernaut are stratospheric. As forward Carli Lloyd said last week, “Anything less [than a championship] is considered a failure in everyone’s eyes.”
In other words, should the United States fall short, Ellis would receive a large share of the blame. After losing in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, the program’s earliest exit from major competition, she probably could not survive another lapse — despite a 98-7-18 overall record entering the knockout stage.
Details of her contract will not come to light until the U.S. Soccer Federation’s financial statements are released next winter, but it’s believed the governing body holds an option for 2020, when the Olympics will take place in Tokyo.
Before receiving what the federation described as a “substantial” raise last year, Ellis was earning about $300,000 — less than both the top assistant under former men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the under-20 men’s boss.
Even if the United States triumphs again, Ellis might decide to leave for fresh opportunities. Given her experience and success, she certainly would draw interest from national federations and clubs in Europe upgrading their women’s operations.
“The résumé speaks for itself,” defender Ali Krieger said. “It’s been really enjoyable playing under a coach who is so demanding and knows exactly what she wants in us. We really try to apply that vision onto the field."
Ellis, 52, is English by birth but moved with her family to Northern Virginia as a teenager. Her father, John, was a well-traveled coach who contributed to the rise of youth soccer in the D.C. metro area.
Jill starred at Fairfax’s Robinson Secondary School, Braddock Road Youth Club and William & Mary before entering the coaching profession. She was an NCAA assistant at Maryland and Virginia and head coach at Illinois and UCLA.
She also served several functions in the USSF before accepting the full-time national team position.
Asked recently to reflect on her journey, from England’s southern coast to the pinnacle of the women’s game, she said: “I grew up playing with boys in the yard and my brother in the backyard, boys in the schoolyard. I just love the sport, love the game. I was just fortunate to move to the States and have an opportunity to play organized football.
"To be in the position I am in, I truly think if I had stayed in England, I am not sure I would be in coaching. At the time, it was not even a career path; it was a rare career path in the States.
"What America gave me was the dream and the opportunity and the ability to follow that path, which I really had never dreamed about. I just feel very fortunate to be here.”
After the 2016 Olympics disappointment, Ellis’s biggest task was to restructure the roster and identify an adaptable, diverse playing style. The experimentation did not yield immediate success, prompting some fans and observers to call for a coaching change.
After further adjustments, the Americans began to find their way again.
She instituted a three-player front line supported by three midfielders while also placing greater emphasis on playing fast, attractive soccer. Julie Ertz, a back-line stalwart, transitioned to defensive midfield. Crystal Dunn shifted from attacker to left back. Carli Lloyd, hero of the 2015 final, took a reserve role.
Young players, such as the Washington Spirit’s Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle, were integrated.
“I feel like I am learning something new every day, which I love,” said Lavelle, 24. “Every time I come into camp, I feel like I am getting better.”
The revamping efforts and subsequent fine-tuning have yielded a surging unit at a peak moment — nine consecutive victories and seven straight shutouts. After deploying everyone on the roster in the group stage, except the two backup goalkeepers, and starting just three players in all three games, Ellis will bring a fresh squad to Stade Auguste-Delaune.
She also will arrive with a set of players who have embraced her plan, tightened bonds and recommitted to the mission.
“The players have stood a tough test,” she said of training camps and playing schedule since the 2015 jewel. “It’s like comparing children, in terms of [U.S.] teams, but the qualities of this team are pretty special.”
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