Jill Ellis: 'We have a fantastic opportunity'

Interview By Paul Kennedy

Jill Ellis was named the eighth head coach of the U.S. women's national team on Friday. She has worked with U.S. Soccer since 2000, most recently as women's development director, so she knows the program inside out. She spoke with Soccer America about the singular goal of her job -- winning next's Women's World Cup in Canada -- and the "challenging conversations," as she put, she'll have to have with players. She talked about the areas where U.S. women need to improve and what she has in mind for Canada '15, where all the matches will be played on artificial surface.

SOCCER AMERICA: Sunil Gulati said your job description consists of one thing: win the Women's World Cup next year? How does it feel to have pressure like that.

JILL ELLIS: I knew the expectations, so I was not surprised by that comment at all. I think pressure is an opportunity. How amazing would it be to bring a World Cup back to the U.S.? So I look at it that way rather than as pressure to bring it back. It's more like, Holy Cow, I can be able to lead this team and these players and have that chance to win the World Cup so that has been my approach. When I've been in coaching as long as I have been, there is always the expectation to win. I am prepared for that. The task at hand is one I am excited to work on. We have an unbelievable group of players and collectively we have a fantastic opportunity. We've heard for a long time, 'Oh, we haven't won a World Cup in -- I'm not sure how many years it's been.' The players know what the goal is. The most important thing is to focus on the process to make sure we get the pieces in place when we play.

SOCCER AMERICA: Would it be fair to say the depth of the current team across the board is the deepest in its history?

JILL ELLIS: I believe so. I've seen the younger teams and there is a real emphasis in this country with club coaching on technique and with that comes these players who are developing and able to play. The other thing we've done a really good job at in U.S. Soccer is give them opportunities. Crystal Dunn has played in two Under-20 World Cups. Sydney Leroux played in a couple, maybe even three World Cups at the youth level. These players are used to that vetting process. I certainly think the depth is probably like we've not had in many, many years. I now when I came with Pia [Sundhage] in '08, there were the Cheneys [Lauren Holiday], the A-Rods [Amy Rodriguez], Tobin Heath -- that was kind of the beginning. I think we've really added depth at every position.

SOCCER AMERICA: You said that you know the players well so the trust is there for you to have some of the challenging conversations that will have to take place. Do you think that one of the key aspects of your job will be these challenging conversations, given the blend of talent, young players trying to take jobs and veterans hoping to keep them?

JILL ELLIS: Absolutely. I think one of the guiding principles of me is honesty and being able to communicate. No player wants to be in the dark. These players are athletes so they are constantly having to prove themselves, whether it's the younger ones or the older ones. They are used to that part of professional athletics, or even amateur athletics, a constant proving. [It's important] to stay true to always being able to communicate and being honest with a player. The message may not always be received or embraced, but that's part of the job. I've been coaching a long time and had very challenging conversations with players. If you're honest with a player, they'll always been appreciative.

SOCCER AMERICA: In your work as women's development director, you've been able to see how our national teams and national teams around the world are developing. What are the biggest areas of improvement the USA has to make and how much greater is the competition than 10 or 15 years ago?

JILL ELLIS: The 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany put the women's game at the forefront of most the nations that have teams. A big event like that showcased players of technical ability and the sophistication of teams. It gave our game a global push. The level of commitment of federations around the world has increased and been transformed. So that makes it challenging. We have the ability to play through thirds and possess the ball because we have tremendous technical players. The message has been for the last four years on my other job: technique, technique, technique. Because the team that has the ball has the better chance. You don't have to be huge in stature. Obviously, Japan has proven that. Being comfortable on the ball allows you to do anything you want. That's our continued emphasis.

We're seeing with the youth programs that the small technical players are getting picked. Now, we want to see that the athletes in our youth game are technically evolving. To do that means we have to encourage a style that plays back to front through the ground. The thing we have to work on is our ability to play against teams that sit back deep against us and beat them with movement and penetrating passes on the group, build up from the back and just collective movement. In terms of the U.S., we still move in ones and twos. You have the ball and I play the player that's checking. Especially with the Asian teams, there is a lot of movement happening.

And building those relationships on the field and building that movement and countermovement and understanding of movement off the ball is an area where can improve. That's something we've been working with the youth teams. Specifically with the national team, I'll be honest. I've seen games on the Internet, I've seen games on television, I've experienced a couple of games recently. There are some fantastic pieces there and it's about establishing a blueprint, not just taking about how we want to play, but having training sessions that emphasize and encourage what we're looking for and what we're asking the players to do.

SOCCER AMERICA: All six venues at next year's Women's World Cup in Canada will have artificial surface. How much impact will it have on how you pick your team or prepare for the tournament?

JILL ELLIS: The surfaces will all be fast, so my continued emphasis on picking technical players will stay true. As far as preparation, absolutely, we'll play games on turf, we'll do some training on turf. But we also must think of the wear and tear on players' bodies, so it is important to return to grass. I definitely think that the faster surface with technical players actually will help us. But we've got to take into consideration the wear and tear on the body. As far as how we play and tactical piece of it, I think the ball will move fast and if we're precise and our movement is good, it will benefit us playing on a quick surface. The overall emphasis will be on keeping the ball and having good tempo as we play.
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