Ellis’ forward thinking reason for USA’s evolving style of play

Jill Ellis springs up from the cushy chair she’d been draped over. The United States women’s national team head coach is excited now. We’ve veered into talk of tactics, her happy place. She grabs a marker and furiously draws out a formation on a fresh sheet of paper on the tall easel, to explain why the difference between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-2 formation is "just semantics" when you’re attacking. It suddenly becomes clear why she needs a hotel room as big as the suite she stayed in during the September training camp in Salt Lake City. She needs the room for all the stacks of paper, the notes and scouting reports and tactical breakdowns and video footage of upcoming opponents strewn all over the place.

This is sort of the point. This is why she is here, why U.S. Soccer appointed her after dismissing Tom Sermanni in April. Her hiring was born from the realization that if the Americans were going to remain the top-ranked team in the world for much longer, they would have to adapt to their times.

International women’s soccer is developing at a stupefying pace. The game keeps gaining in quickness and sophistication. Every year, a few more countries seem to be figuring out how to compete, forging technically gifted or tactically savvy teams — or both. The in-born advantage the USA has always held — the endless supply of elite prospects churned out by the college system, courtesy of Title IX — has eroded as an increased understanding of the women’s game has helped other programs overcome the vast chasm in resources.

In all honesty, coaching the USA didn’t used to be a terribly hard job. If you kept your players happy and healthy, success and job security would invariably follow. This is no longer so. And Ellis understands this well. In her first meeting with the team, she put a quote up on the blackboard. Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get run over.

The USA had played the same way for more than a decade, leveraging their superior athleticism and pummeling high balls and crosses at their forwards. That direct style threatened to grow outdated, that much was clear at the 2011 Women’s World Cup, where the USA only fell in the final, to Japan on penalties, but had plainly lost its dominance. "All those players know that we’ve got to evolve to be successful," Ellis told FOXSoccer.com in an interview. "Because our game is evolving so rapidly. We can’t stay where we’re at. We’ve got to take the best of what we have and add more to it."

She continues in her hybrid English-American accent, the residue of an itinerant childhood: "The challenge for this team is: We’re capable of keeping the ball — can we do it more consistently? We’re good enough to run by someone and play a ball in behind — can we do it consistently? Can we really maximize our qualities that we have? You’ve got to keep continuing to seek and search and refine."

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She has insisted on quick exchanges of the ball, more plays over the wings, quicker transitions. Most of all, she wants more and higher possession. But not just for the sake of it, or to fall in line with the present-day fetish for holding onto the ball. "We are possessing to progress," says Ellis. "Our possession is a tool. The more comfortable we are on the ball, the better we use that tool. It’s really about moving the opponent and exploiting spaces."

At times during the ongoing CONCACAF qualifying tournament for next year’s Women’s World Cup, it’s been tricky implementing the new system. Teams have literally posted all 11 of their players into their own box against the Americans, to avoid a massacre. Whereas previous American coaches didn’t have to worry much about who was lining up at the other side of the half-way stripe before kickoff, Ellis isn’t afforded that luxury. She has to adjust to opponents, to break down bunkers. Still, flashes of her nascent system have shone through at times, when the ball pings its way around the tightly-packed opposing lines as if in a pinball machine.

Ellis fixates on strategy and shape, speaking of roles rather than positions, but she is no tactical ideologue. She believes in fitting her system to her players. She learned that from her father, a long-time international coach, who got her started in the field when she was just 16 and encouraged her to ditch a well-paying job as a technical writer for a shot as an assistant coach at the University of Maryland for just $6,000 two decades ago.

She was a great success in college, taking UCLA to seven straight Final Fours. She went on to work for the federation, handling the oldest youth national teams and coordinating overall player development. At the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, she assisted then-head coach Pia Sundhage. When Sundhage stepped down late in 2012, Sermanni wasn’t hired to succeed her until Ellis had turned the job down. Ellis didn’t fancy all the travel and preferred to spend more time with her partner and daughter. This time around, she couldn’t say no.

Ellis is chatty and warm. She’s a big hugger. She likes to have team and player meetings and talk about the program’s direction and evolution. The players appreciate her management. They had all worked with her before, either on the youth teams or during Olympic campaigns. "With an assistant you have a different type of relationship," says defender Ali Krieger. "I think it’s really big that she’s had that experience with us and that’s how we became really close with her. That respect was built during that time. In that role, you have a closeness with each player and now as a head coach I think she gets more out of us because now we respect her so much from that role."

"Her ability to effectively motivate us is really important," adds striker Abby Wambach. "Whereas obviously Pia and Tom are from different countries [Sweden and Scotland, respectively], I think that there’s so much value to be added when a coach has literally coached a lot of us when we were 20 years old. Knowing how we’ve kind of evolved and grown and how we all tick, she’s very, very smart at being able to individually pick out the things that motivate the players."

Her ability to effectively motivate us is really important. Knowing how we’ve kind of evolved and grown and how we all tick, she’s very, very smart at being able to individually pick out the things that motivate the players.

USWNT striker Abby Wambach on Jill Ellis' managerial style.  

That’s a rare thing. "I think that not a lot of coaches, at least in my career that I’ve experienced, have that," says Krieger.

This familiarity and fondness with her players allows Ellis to criticize where necessary. "Jill is laid back in a way but still is able to really kind of get into us," says midfielder Megan Rapinoe. "She has a good rapport with players off the field and that allows her to give criticism and say it like it is. We have a pretty honest relationship with her."

Most of all though, Ellis has garnered an appreciation for finding middle ground, for successfully reconciling the American mentally with a modern playing style. "I think she brought back what the USA is always about — an incredible intensity, incredible competitiveness," says veteran winger Heather O’Reilly.

"I think we needed that," echoes Krieger.

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It is perhaps telling for Ellis that her assistant Tony Gustavsson, himself a finalist for the job and one of the few big-time coaches in the women’s game, was happy to work under her after she beat him to the appointment. They are kindred spirits, staying up until the early morning talking about the game. On the practice field you’ll hear him as often as you will her. He, too, is preoccupied with progress. He describes Ellis as a "modern coach."

"She’s followed the game for a long, long time, so she’s seen the development of the game and she sees where the future game is at," he says. "Jill wants us to be a team that’s in the front line of where the game is going, instead of being a follower."

Ellis is reportedly under contract through next year’s World Cup, where the Americans will seek to win the title for the first time since 1999. An option in her deal can extend it through 2020. If her revolution comes off next summer, it will be here to stay. And by extension, so will the USA’s dominance.