The United States women’s national team is not a mystery. It’s a two-time World Cup winner, went to the final at Germany 2011 and won an Olympic gold in 2012. It heads into the World Cup with a team that we know inside and out, a world power that has been together for the better part of a decade. Fifteen of the 23 players on this summer’s team have played in a World Cup before.
And yet the person leading the team is a complete unknown. This is the first time she’s managed professionals, and she’s never led a team to a title. Her name is Jill Ellis, the head coach who gets all of the skepticism without any of the renown.
Skepticism is nothing new for Ellis. She’s been dealing with it since she was hired last year. The surprise firing of Tom Sermanni, who had been transforming the U.S. style of play for more than a year before poor results at the 2014 Algarve Cup, raised eyebrows in U.S. Soccer’s direction, and there wasn’t a hire in the world that would have lowered them. The appointment of Ellis, a replacement with no full-time experience above the collegiate level, just pushed those eyebrows higher.
Nobody is more familiar with U.S. women’s soccer than Ellis, who had been serving as the program’s development director before she got Sermanni’s job. That as much as anything landed her where she is now. U.S. Soccer, unconvinced by Sermanni’s changes, went to a familiar face, but with that reversal came accusations of granting the players too much control. The program seemed to be reflecting an unwillingness to change with a growing women’s game. Was it realistic to think the players and style that led the U.S. to world supremacy more than a decade ago can prevail in the modern game?
There are people who could get away with such stubbornness. Had Pia Sundhage stayed on as U.S. manager after the last Olympics, she almost assuredly would have continued to use many of the same players and the direct style that made her reign so successful. An Olympic gold medal, World Cup final and jovial nature won the hearts of players. Fans and the media would have kept the heat off of her.
Ellis has none of that. Instead, Ellis can claim to have coached collegiately in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and Pac-10, taking her from coast-to-coast. She can point to conference titles and College Cup appearances. She can say she worked with the U.S. U-20 and U-21 teams, even serving as an assistant coach under Sundhage.
But each step has come with a fair level of concern. While she helped make UCLA one of the best programs in the country, she never won a national title in Westwood. A year after she left, the Bruins finally did it, conquering the country while playing a more possession-oriented and technical style than they ever did under Ellis. She did win a CONCACAF U-20 championship with that age group, but she also suffered an embarrassing quarterfinal exit at the 2010 U-20 World Cup – the earliest elimination the U.S. has ever suffered at the competition.
Even under Sundhage she was never the team’s top assistant. Toss in a conservative personality — rarely willing to say anything of interest in a press conference, often giving unclear answers that leave the media to guess her intentions — and Ellis certainly hasn’t warmed hearts and minds.
The Americans’ play under her stead hasn’t done much to change things. Players have been moved out of their natural positions, tactics have changed, and the only real positive results have come against bad teams. Nearly every time the U.S. has come up against the world’s better teams, the results have been disappointing, and its style of play even worse. The attempts to play through the midfield and be more well-rounded have been unsuccessful.
Ellis chalked up some of the struggles to growing pains. She’s experimented and pushed players out of their comfort zones knowing she didn’t need to win the slew of irrelevant friendlies the team has played. It’s an entirely reasonable approach and should be reason to dismiss the team’s struggles, but doing so requires a level of trust. That’s a level of trust Ellis hasn’t yet earned, a result of lack of opportunity as much as failure. There was never a professional season for her to earn that trust or even a high profile international tournament. There’s just been amateur teams, assistant coaching and friendlies.
We know Abby Wambach can win a header. We saw it last World Cup, just like that showed us Megan Rapinoe can hit a great pass, Carli Lloyd can score and Hope Solo can play the role of hero. It’s been over a decade since we learned Christie Rampone can handle the center of defense. We know Alex Morgan’s speed and finishing, and we know Lauren Holiday’s skill on the ball.
But Ellis, we don’t know about her. Not at this level, and not under this pressure. This is all new for her and as she learns about World Cup management on the fly, we learn about her. We do so with skepticism and uncomfortable unfamiliarity. Someone on the team has to carry a torch. In the absence of Sundhage, is she the one?