WINNIPEG — Girls did not play soccer. Not in England in the 1970s. Not in a culture of men packing pubs to watch matches, wearing club colors and knocking around the ball with the lads.
In the 8,700-strong village of Cowplain, some 10 miles north of where the English Channel passes Portsmouth, Jill Ellis watched big brother Paul play for school and youth teams. She revered her father, John, a former Royal Marine commando who coached around the world on behalf of the British government.
Jill was a decent athlete, a runner mostly. Organized soccer, though, was out of the question.
“It was unladylike,” recalled her mother, Margaret.
So Jill Ellis, the current head coach of the U.S. Women’s World Cup squad, tagged along with Paul to the neighborhood park. If the boys needed a player to even out the sides, she would jump into the fray. The family back yard was her private training ground.
“Soccer was in my blood, but there were no formal opportunities for girls,” she said. “Soccer was for the boys. So I played with the boys.”
And now she is guiding women — the most decorated program in the sport. Ellis, 48, has been on the job for a little more than a year. Piloting a team that has made the World Cup semifinals every four years but hasn’t lifted the trophy since 1999, she carries the responsibility of getting the United States to the July 5 final in Vancouver.
After opening the World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Australia on Monday, the Americans will play their second Group D match Friday night against Sweden. Her parents will be cheering from their home in Florida.
“I worked with English soccer. I’m proud of it,” John said. “But England did not give my daughter the opportunity to play the game.”
Ellis’s path in life — and in soccer — turned in 1981 when she was 14. John decided to take his coaching chops to Northern Virginia, working first for the Annandale Boys Club and then launching Manassas-based Soccer Academy.
In the United States, where Pele and the North American Soccer League introduced the game to the masses, participation in soccer was beginning to boom — for both genders.
Jill’s soccer environment rotated from exclusive to inclusive.
“It was the first time I put on a uniform,” she said. “I remember my coach asking me what position I played. I looked at her funny and said, ‘I don’t really know.’ ”
She captained Burke’s Robinson Secondary School to the 1984 state championship. That summer, she won the under-19 national club title with the Braddock Road Bluebelles.
Tossed into an American teenage maelstrom, she found comfort playing soccer as well as field hockey. “It was a big school with kids of all kinds. I was the shy one, the sensitive one,” she said. “Playing sports enabled me to connect and to make friends.”
At Soccer Academy, she both honed her skills and observed her father mold players and coaches. “I watched. I learned,” she said.
“We would have a little break,” John said, “and she would say, ‘Teach me this!’ ”
The academy was a family affair: Margaret managed the books, and after serving in the British military himself, Paul took over the business about 10 years ago. He also coached at several area high schools and assisted the George Mason University women’s team.
Jill’s playing ability earned her a place at William and Mary, where she starred in the attack for four years and earned third-team all-American honors.
With the U.S. national team program only beginning to take shape and no pro league, college soccer marked the end for most female players. Ellis had a degree in English literature and composition. Away from the field, a bright future awaited.
Soccer’s itch, though, persisted.
“She came back to me and said, ‘Dad, I want to do soccer,’ ” said John Ellis, who has worked with soccer programs from Singapore to Trinidad and Tobago. “I went, ‘Well, hang on a minute, you really don’t. You should perhaps go away and do something more substantial.’ ”
While earning a master’s degree in technical writing at North Carolina State, she served as an assistant coach for the Wolfpack.
“She came back to me again,” John recalled, “and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I want to come back into soccer.’ I said, ‘No, you go out into the world and try something else.’ ”
Jill took a job with Northern Telecom in the D.C. area. She wasn’t happy, her parents remembered. Soccer continued pulling at her.
Jill worked as an assistant at the University of Maryland for three years in the mid-1990s and at Virginia for one. In both cases, April Heinrichs was her boss. They had first crossed paths at William and Mary, where Heinrichs, a former U.S. captain, was an assistant coach. Ellis introduced Heinrichs to her father, who mentored the aspiring leader.
A decade later, when Heinrichs became national team coach, she hired John Ellis as an assistant.
Jill’s first head coaching job was overseeing the launch of the University of Illinois program. After two years, UCLA hired her. She guided the Bruins to eight Final Fours over 12 years and a 229-45-14 record. In 2000, her second season, she was named national coach of the year.
Ellis began to climb the U.S. Soccer Federation ranks. Youth national team assignments overlapped with the UCLA job. She assisted Pia Sundhage with the senior national team at the 2008 Olympics and 2011 World Cup, then left the college ranks to become the USSF’s development director for women’s programs.
When Sundhage stepped down after the 2012 Summer Games, Ellis was appointed interim coach. She was a natural candidate for full-time duty. Worn down by travel, she withdrew from consideration to spend more time with her wife, Betsy, and their adopted daughter.
Early in 2014, the USSF’s dismissal of Tom Sermanni as national team coach thrust Ellis back into consideration. Again, she was the temporary caretaker. This time, though, she felt settled enough to pursue the job for the long term.
Said Ellis: “I thought to myself, ‘How many times am I going to get this opportunity?’ ”
In May last year, she got it. The primary aim: recalibrate a team that had lost its way under Sermanni and set a course for Canada. The Americans breezed through World Cup qualifying and, after a few rough patches in the winter, found their footing.
Ellis also had to confront off-field issues involving goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was charged with domestic abuse and got into trouble with her husband during a U.S. training camp.
Ellis and the USSF did not discipline Solo for the legal problems — they have been criticized by some fans and media members for allowing her to remain on the team — but did suspend her for the incident that occurred on official team duty.
Since the reinstatement in February, Ellis said, Solo has carried herself professionally.
“There is no doubt when you take this job, you know exactly what you are getting into,” she said. “I’ve been historically connected to U.S. soccer. I know the expectations. I know the players. It’s something you have to embrace or you don’t take a job like this.”
With Solo in sensational form, the Americans are alone atop Group D, considered the most difficult in the tournament, after their victory over Australia. Next up is Sweden, which is coached by Ellis’s former boss, Sundhage.
Despite their British roots — and thick accents — Ellis’s parents are full-out American. The entire family was naturalized years ago. In their retirement community in Florida, John claims only their home has an American flag on constant exhibit.
For whom would they support if their daughter were to lead the United States against England at some point during the World Cup?
“Go U-S-A!” Margaret shouted.