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'Timing is right’: Jill Ellis to step down as U.S. women’s national team coach

Jill Ellis, coach of the U.S. women's national team, will step down following a five-match victory tour. She guided the Americans to back-to-back World Cup titles. (Porter Binks/EPA-EFE/REX)

Jill Ellis, who this month steered the U.S. women’s national soccer team to a second consecutive World Cup championship, will step down as head coach after a five-game victory tour.

“This is not a job someone should do for 10 years,” she said Tuesday. "I think change is good. New perspective. ... The timing is right to move on, and the program is positioned to remain at the pinnacle of women’s soccer.”

She has a 102-7-18 record in five-plus years and never lost a World Cup match (13-0-1).

Ellis’s contract expires Wednesday, and although the U.S. Soccer Federation held an option to retain her through the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Ellis said she felt it was time to move on and pursue other opportunities.

For the time being, she will continue to work for the USSF as an ambassador, representing the governing body at events and speaking engagements.

“The U.S. Soccer Federation and the sport in general owes Jill a debt of gratitude,” USSF President Carlos Cordeiro said in a statement.

Ellis, 52, will remain in charge for Saturday’s friendly against Ireland in Pasadena, Calif., two games against Portugal around Labor Day in Philadelphia and St. Paul, Minn., and two matches in October (details pending). Her replacement, or an interim coach, will start in November with two friendlies, including one at Washington’s Audi Field.

The search for the new coach will not accelerate until the federation hires a general manager for the women’s team. That decision is close, multiple people close to the process said.

Top assistant Tony Gustavsson returned to his native Sweden and does not appear to be in the running for the coaching position. Another assistant, Steve Swanson, is the longtime head coach of the University of Virginia women’s program and has guided youth national teams for many years.

Ellis would like to see the federation hire a woman, saying, “I think there are a lot of qualified females. You also hope by doing it people have trust a female can do this. People have seen it and people potentially want to aspire to coach, not just soccer but whatever sport. You really hope that is part of the legacy you leave behind.”

She said she spoke with Cordeiro about the succession.

“Ultimately,” Ellis said, “you need someone who is prepared, ready and experienced at this level.”

Ellis told the players of her decision this week, one person with knowledge of the situation said. However, she said as early as last winter she began thinking about stepping down after the World Cup. She cited the demands on her family (a wife and teenage daughter) and the need to hand over the reins before a new cycle begins.

Ellis has worked for the USSF in one capacity or another since 1999 and served as a senior national team assistant and interim head coach before accepting the primary job in May 2014.

This month, she became the first national team coach (men’s or women’s) in 81 years to win consecutive World Cup championships. The top-ranked Americans completed a seven-game sweep in France with a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands and extended their unbeaten streak to 16.

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Ellis is the all-time U.S. leader in matches coached and is second in victories, three behind the late Tony DiCicco. She was FIFA’s coach of the year in 2015 and the presumed front-runner for the award this year.

The only significant blemish came at the 2016 Olympics with elimination in the quarterfinals (in a penalty-kick tiebreaker against Sweden), the program’s earliest exit from a major tournament.

The decision was not completely unexpected. While many assumed she would stay through the Olympics, others in and around the USSF figured she would step aside and explore options with another national team or a European club that has committed to investing in its women’s program. There has also been speculation she would pursue a men’s coaching job at some point.

Ellis was born in England and as a teenager moved to Northern Virginia, where she starred at Robinson Secondary School and Braddock Road Youth Club. She also played at William & Mary.

“I enjoy new challenges,” she said. “As to what those challenges are going to be ... I don’t have something set in my head, in my mind, right now. When you go through something that intensive [this summer] and after doing it so long, I just need to take a step back and take it all in.”

Meticulous in her preparation and dry in her humor, Ellis promoted harmony among the players and instilled a rabid hunger after the Olympic disappointment. Her team was relentless in pursuit of a second consecutive world title, barreling through the group stage and never wavering under the pressure of close games against improving programs in the knockout round.

Critics often dismissed her coaching ability, saying almost anyone could have won with the U.S. program’s talent and depth. However, her tactical acumen positioned a conservative U.S. squad to win the 2015 World Cup, ending a 16-year drought.

“I fully understand if I hadn’t won in 2015,” Ellis said, “I am not coaching after 2016 [when the Americans failed to win a fifth gold medal] because the bar is so high.”

Ellis quietly sits at the heart of U.S. World Cup juggernaut

Early in this recently completed World Cup cycle, when formation experiments failed, Ellis switched to a more aggressive setup, spearheaded by three forwards. Between World Cups, she also implemented rising talent, such as Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle.

She mixed those newcomers with battle-tested players — the U.S. team was the oldest and most experienced at the World Cup — and kept her faith in goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who filled the starting role after star Hope Solo was dismissed from the program for a series of off-the-field issues.

“The opportunity to coach this team and work with these amazing women has been the honor of a lifetime,” Ellis said. “I want to thank and praise them for their commitment and passion to not only win championships but also raise the profile of this sport globally while being an inspiration to those who will follow them."

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