Legacy secured, Jill Ellis walks away from game she loves
The hotel restaurant is otherwise deserted on a winter afternoon. A long training camp for the U.S. women's national team is coming to a close. The start of the World Cup in France is still more than a year away. And Jill Ellis is downright giddy. It often happens when she talks soccer.
She moves packets of sugar around the table in front of her like a street hustler working a game of three-card monte. But she isn't trying to deceive. She wants you to understand. She wants you to see what she sees, what each packet -- representing a U.S. player -- needs to do to propel the team forward.
Ellis is reserved on the sideline, only occasionally coming out of her seat during most games. She is politely patient in news conferences, good for a quip but always eager to get out of the room without making any news, without making her job any more difficult than it already is.
But get her alone and the soccer spills out, minutes stretching into hours. She is obsessed with soccer. Not with winning, but with the game and its particular rhythms and challenges. She had to be obsessed to succeed in a job that is so often about so much more than soccer.
Ellis never had much interest in being a character in the most compelling story in women's team sports, the on-field dominance and off-field social upheaval with which the U.S. is associated. She shunned the megaphone that the players regularly seized. Now that her time in charge is at an end, the coach announcing she will step down in October at the end of the World Cup victory tour, that reticence might harm her legacy. It also undoubtedly helped her deserve one.
Only someone so obsessed could survive amid the expectations, evolution and empowerment that marked the most successful and arguably consequential stretch in national team history.
"I think it is one of the most challenging jobs," Ellis said Tuesday. "You've got to make sure you're listening to the people that are important to listen to. And then everything else, you kind of have to tune out and do your thing."
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For as much as she eschewed it, Ellis could have been the modern game's quintessential character.
April Heinrichs was a great player for the first generation of the women's national team, well before she became its coach. Pia Sundhage was a standout on the field for Sweden, one of the northern European nations that embraced the U.S. women's game in its FIFA-branded infancy. But as the third woman to coach the national team on a full-time basis, and the first without international experience as a player, Ellis embodied how far the sport has come in a short stretch of time.
Born in England, she cheered on local side Portsmouth and Manchester United. She watched her dad coach and her brother play but had few options of her own. The gender divide still held firm in England at the time, still not far removed from the Football Association prohibiting women from playing at all. It was only after she moved to Virginia that she got the chance to play.
Less than the span of a lifetime later, Ellis coached a team that didn't exist when she got to America to a second consecutive World Cup title. And she did it by beating European country after European country in which women not only play the game but earn a living doing so. Including a semifinal win against England.
"I had to leave my home country to go and experience the game," Ellis said during the World Cup. "It's delightful that these countries are now actively supporting women's football."
Not to mention doing that as an openly gay married woman in a world where that isn't a headline.
Yet Ellis, an English major at William & Mary, never wrote herself into the story. Not the way that, intentionally or not, peers such as Sundhage or Germany's Silvia Neid became characters at times even bigger than those they coached (a path Phil Neville trod during this past World Cup).
Those sugar packets moving around the table always mattered more.
Ellis was hired in 2014 to coach a team not of her choosing -- a supremely talented team, to be sure, but still a team that she had to figure out. Among their grievances, critics always noted that she almost failed on that count out of the gate. And they aren't wrong. She played Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd too deep in the midfield during the 2015 World Cup and adjusted, freeing Lloyd for a memorable run, only after her hand was forced by yellow card suspensions early in the knockout rounds.
But the U.S., with two aging captains in Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone accepting diminished roles from the new coach, did win in 2015. The team had that glorious afternoon in Vancouver, British Columbia, as some 60,000 Americans crossed the border to watch in person and 25 million watched at home.
Lucky or good, she passed the test. It wasn't the last one.
On the field, Ellis had the opportunity but also the challenge of changing generations after the 2015 World Cup. She closed that year with Wambach's farewell game and began the next with Mallory Pugh's debut.
With a team in transition, she was in charge when the U.S. suffered its earliest ever exit in a major tournament, losing an Olympic quarterfinal penalty shootout against Sweden. She called that game the most important of her tenure. Failing to solve Sweden's defense gave her the blueprint for how the U.S. had to play moving toward the 2019 World Cup.
For Ellis, that mattered far more than Hope Solo's incendiary comments that dominated the moment.
She rode out Megan Rapinoe's national anthem protests, passing on an opportunity to publicly support either the player's stance or the freedom of expression but also leaving wide open the door to continue with the team and enjoy a renaissance that culminated in the World Cup.
Ellis was largely absent from the discussion as players challenged the federation over equal pay, no matter the sizable discrepancy between her salary and that of former men's coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
She navigated internal dissent that reportedly bordered on a coup, with players expressing frustration to U.S. Soccer leaders amid the rotating roster door and tactical experimentation of 2017 and early 2018.
She could be distant, as when veteran defender Ali Krieger was left befuddled by her exclusion from the team for two years after the Olympics. But she was pragmatic. Surely knowing it would only fuel her critics, she also called Krieger back in when she needed another outside back with the World Cup approaching.
Lloyd didn't enjoy the reserve role she increasingly played for Ellis. The captain also played that role exceptionally well, erasing a potential weakness at a key position.
How much credit Ellis deserves for any one of those trials is up for debate. How much credit she gets for the emergence of Tierna Davidson, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and others is up for debate. The fact remains that after going through all of them, she ended up still in charge of her own future as the first coach in women's soccer and the first in either gender since the 1930s to win back-to-back World Cups.
In a tumultuous era, Ellis never wavered. For better or worse, it was all about soccer.
Speaking Tuesday, she didn't sound like someone burned out on the game or someone who would be satisfied in the long run with the ambassadorial role for U.S. Soccer mentioned thus far as her next step. She wants to spend more time with her family, her wife and her teenage daughter preparing to start high school. She seems to genuinely believe it's time for a new perspective on the bench.
But why leave at the height of her power? The height of this team's power?
Because that was never the point.
"The advice I would give the next person is to do it their way," Ellis said. "Make sure you do it in the way you want to do it. Because that's very much how I felt."
The coach who was all about soccer. The team that was about so much more. They were a good match.