He guided the USA, with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, to fourth place at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. As U-17 national team coach for seven years, a span that included the launch of the Bradenton residency program, Ellinger also coached the likes of Freddy Adu, Bobby Convey and Eddie Johnson.
But Ellinger believes the United States can produce exceptional players at a more impressive rate. And after a three-year stint as an MLS coach, Ellinger has returned to the youth game to help make that happen.
Ellinger has been hired by U.S. Youth Soccer as Technical Director, a newly created position for the nation's largest youth sports organization, whose membership comprises 3 million players and 300,000 youth coaches.
His responsibilities, as described by USYS, include "all aspects of the association's coaching initiatives, including a renewed focus on player development with consistent themes and coaching education.
"The department will collaborate with technical and coaching education experts at the state and club levels, ensuring that U.S. Youth Soccer maintains the relevancy of its programs and events, and the association's storied player development and identification programs."
Ellinger, 56, arrives at USYS with extensive coaching experience at various levels. After coaching the University of Maryland-Baltimore County for nearly a decade, he served as Director of Coaching for the Columbia (Md.) Soccer Association, where he won two USYS National Championship titles with the Columbia City United boys team.
He coached the Washington Diplomats of the APSL and served as assistant coach with the Columbus Crew during MLS's inaugural 1996 season. As U.S. U-17 coach from 1997 until becoming Real Salt Lake head coach in late 2004, Ellinger ran the Bradenton residency program that was attended by more than 100 players during his tenure.
The first group, which entered Bradenton in 1999, was the most impressive.
"You're talking about some gifted and creative players," Ellinger says of Kyle Beckerman, Beasley, Donovan and Convey. "These are guys who in their early training were exposed to the right kind of environment. They were players who had ideas of how to play that not many other players had."
Ellinger's two-plus seasons as MLS head coach gave him further opportunities to evaluate the quality of the American player.
"The pool of the middle-of-the-road player who can do enough to be successful at that top level for a couple of years has gotten much deeper," he says. "But it's the players who can come into the league the first year, be starters, have an impact - we have to do a better job of developing those players."
Ellinger believes youth coaching has improved immensely, thanks to U.S. Soccer, USYS and NSCAA coaching education programs.
"So players are getting better coaching," he says, "but are these coaches the ones who get them at the younger age levels? That's always a concern."
USYS collaborates with the USSF on coaching courses and advocates competition guidelines for its 55 state associations, but the recommendations on crucial aspects of player development aren't always followed at the grassroots levels.
"The hardest word to spell in youth sports is probably 'mandate,'" says Ellinger. "You throw out there what states and leagues should be doing at certain ages - age-specific priorities - and hope most states, most leagues and most clubs follow those kinds of notions."
Ellinger will be evaluating how states run their competitions, coaching education and Olympic Development Programs.
"We'll try to reinforce what's going on in states that are following the recommendations put forth by U.S. Soccer and U.S. Youth Soccer," he says, "and looking at those states that aren't and saying, 'How can we get this information to your coaches in a way that's positive and effective?'"
USYS believes with Ellinger's leadership it can improve the experiences of recreational and elite players - and truly special players will come out of the youth ranks more frequently.
"As players go through various age groups, they should be allowed the creativity and the ability to not worry about making mistakes," he said. "They need to be allowed to get forward, take some risks, and make decisions in all three areas of the field."
(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)