LYON, France — On U.S. women’s soccer match days, seated at his organ in the Florida retirement home he shares with his wife, John Ellis sings the Liverpool FC anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
While doing so, he glances at a photo of his daughter, Jill, taken when she guided the United States to the 2015 Women’s World Cup title in Canada.
“She doesn’t know I do that. It’s a bit crazy, but I do,” John, 80, said during a phone interview Saturday. “When you are a soccer fan, you do crazy things.”
Crazy things include wearing the same red, collared shirt he owned when he was an assistant coach of the U.S. women’s national team early in the previous decade. And he will plant American flags in flower pots in front of their home. (There is also a 2015 World Cup banner hanging out front.)
Worlds will collide here Tuesday when the United States faces England in a semifinal before an expected sold-out crowd of 58,000. The Ellis clan, after all, is from England and relocated to the D.C. area almost 40 years ago. John, wife Margaret, Jill and Paul, who runs the Northern Virginia youth academy that John founded in 1981, are naturalized citizens.
The Americans are seeking their fourth trophy in eight attempts; the Lionesses’ best finish was third place four years ago.
John and Margaret have always thought of a day when Jill coached the United States against England in a World Cup.
“It’s very exciting,” Margaret said. “I think it will be a good game. Go USA!”
Aside from the fact the family has lived in the United States for decades and Jill coaches the top-ranked U.S. squad, America gave her an opportunity to play soccer. In England, there were no formal programs for girls, and female participation was discouraged.
In the United States, Jill starred for Fairfax’s Robinson Secondary School, Braddock Road Youth Club Bluebelles and William & Mary. She coached at the college level for years before rising in the national team ranks.
“On one hand, I am delighted to see the England girls do well,” John said. “But I truly know where my allegiance lies because this country gave me my opportunity. I have a lot of pride being English, but I came to America.”
Before moving the family to the D.C. area, John, a former Royal Marines commando, traveled the world on behalf of the English Football Association, the sport’s governing body. The family was centered near Portsmouth on England’s southern coast.
Jill has been gone from England so long that her accent is barely detectable. As U.S. coach, she has faced England five times since 2014 (going 3-1-1) but never in a major tournament.
While Jill’s ties have faded, England has kept interest in her. Two years ago, when the FA was seeking a replacement for the ousted Mark Sampson, the English organization approached her, multiple people familiar with the situation said. Citing her contract and a general commitment to the U.S. program, she did not engage in formal talks.
“It has gone through my mind as she has developed her coaching career whether she would go back to England someday,” John said. “I don’t think so now. We’re Americanized. She has a job to do, and she will do it.”
“It was a dominant performance,” she said. “A lot of experience, a lot of really good players. It’s going to be a good matchup.”
As she formulates a game plan to beat her birth country, Jill will continue receiving regular texts from her parents.
Two weeks ago, as the United States prepared to play Chile in a Group F match on Father’s Day, she said: “I get a text every day from my dad: ‘Enjoy the challenge.’ [Fathers] are all a big part of who we are, and sometimes it’s not a father; it’s a role model. I don’t think we lose sight of that.”
John dismisses the thought that he dispenses tactical lessons or lineup advice.
“I don’t give any suggestions,” he said. “When Margaret and I text her, it’s truly love and support. Jill knows what she is doing.”
John does continue to coach, though. He runs soccer seminars for seniors at the retirement community: practice once a week, matches once a week.
He and Margaret will watch the semifinal at home, but if the U.S. team advances to the final, the retirement community northwest of Orlando, known as The Villages, will gather for a watch party in a recreation center.
“It’s what we did in 2015,” he said. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I hope we can do it again.”