SOCCER AMERICA: You're about six months away from the World Cup and your team is in excellent form. Some would say better than ever. Obviously, that's a good thing, but does it present a different sort of challenge -- to keep that level up -- as opposed to be building up to peak at World Cup time?
JILL ELLIS: 2018 was positive on many levels, but internally, players and staff, all believe we have another level and there is a huge drive to be better for us to be successful next summer. The priority will to be peak in June, so we are looking at the next seven months as a season – meaning the early camp and games in January will be our “preseason,” and then we build towards the “postseason” in June and July.
Next month we play France and Spain away in a short turnaround and that will be challenging, but these moments will also be extraordinarily valuable in the prep for next summer. Bottom line, Mike, is we like where we are, but also really excited to see where our hard work and talent will take us.
SA: A major challenge for a coach is integrating new players into a squad with a core of veterans -- especially with a world championship team. On the men's side Germany, Spain and Italy have famously failed, but you managed that very well so far. To what do you attribute that going so smoothly?
JILL ELLIS: I think it is a combination of factors. When a new player comes in, I think as a coach you can take two paths, let them “sink or swim" so to speak, or support and invest in them, and the process they are in. Ultimately, their qualities on the field must hold weight, but we felt it was important to have the messaging to any new player be, “Hey, you have qualities that we like, take risks in here, let those qualities shine, and know that it will not be perfect.”
Having built a defined framework of roles and principles on which we play, also gives a new player something to lean on when integrating into our environment. And I think also, the players in our environment are critical in helping a young or new player adjust. For sure, this is a really tough team to break into, but veteran players like Becky [Sauerbrunn], Alex [Morgan], Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe], and Carli [Lloyd], and well, honestly, the group as a whole are very open and welcoming to new players in camp.
SA: How are you able to judge which players are ready to be called in -- especially in the case of relatively inexperienced college players -- because you also want to make sure they're up to the level and can perform to par in such a highly competitive environment as a U.S. national team camp?
JILL ELLIS: Aside from our own eyes, we rely on our Talent Director, B.J. Snow, to identify and track potential invitees. There is a lot of communication and interaction about players, not just college players, but NWSL players, players playing oversees, and players in youth national teams.
I would say a large portion of B.J.’s day is spent talking to his network of coaches – on every level. Again, having a clear picture of how we want to play, we then look at the positional profile of the type of players we are looking for and assess if those qualities are present.
When a player first comes in, we never talk about their age or experience, those are non-factors in our evaluation, the assessment is seeing if those same qualities we liked in their own environment can transfer to our platform. So, if you take a player like Tierna Davidson for example, what we liked about her was she showed passing range and vision, composure on the ball, one-v-one defending ability and she also had a good physical profile.
The question then becomes can she do those things at the highest level. For sure, you anticipate player’s having some anxiety their first camp, but if they show some good moments then it warrants further investigation. We opened a big net last year in our evaluation to bring us to this point and the players we have consistently brought in over the last six months are deserving of their inclusion.
SA: Regarding college soccer: How important is it for the senior team that college players get opportunities to experience the international game? How much are you looking to college players for the near future of your team, and what's the cooperation like between college coaches and the national team program? (There have been issues of releasing players, especially at the U-20 World Cup a couple years ago.)
JILL ELLIS: Ask any former women’s national team coach, or current player, and they will tell you the international game is unique, so to answer the first part of your question, it is very important for elite players to experience the international game. Good players will get pulled in a lot of directions, and everyone pulling will have their own agenda.
I guess ultimately you hope the player gets supported and guided to pursue experiences that they will grow from. Many of our players came out of the college ranks, but then some others like [Lindsey] Horan and [Mallory] Pugh, chose a different path. There is no one route to the senior team, but international experience is invaluable.
I spent a long time in the college game, and actively recruited some of the top youth players in the country and if you want the best players on campus, I believe you have to understand and support that international soccer at any age group is a critical part of their development.
We recently brought in Emily Fox during UNC’s NCAA tournament schedule, and Anson [Dorrance] without hesitation was “all in” with her being on our roster. That is the cooperation we need -- a “what is best for the player” approach.
Of course, some coaches are less willing to release players and they prioritize their program, and I get it, we all want to meet the needs of our team, but like I said, these experiences are invaluable. A top recruit also should prioritize their development, and if need be, get a written commitment from the coach and or their administration so they can freely be released for any international opportunity. Commitment is a two-way proposition.
As far as “looking to college players for the near future of this team” I would say, the guiding principle is, we are looking for the best players to fit our team, from any platform.
SA: A couple of moves you made that turned out very well was moving players to different positions, notably 2015 World Cup central defender Julie Ertz to midfield and forward Crystal Dunn to outside back. Can you speak to why that worked out so well? And perhaps why coaches can be more open-minded to players' versatility. And the skill required of coaches to instill confidence in players to move to a different position. (In my humble coaching experience, I'm always surprised at how even very good players don't like when you ask them to change positions.)
JILL ELLIS: More and more I have appreciated the word versatility in coaching. People used to be allergic to that word, “we need specialists,” but with the tactical flexibility you see in today’s game and the need to problem-solve with limited substitutions, versatility is more appreciated.
For sure, specialists are critical, a 10, a 9, etc., but what the important ingredient is here, is a player being in a position that maximizes their skill set. Crystal is phenomenal in tight spaces, getting crosses off, and destroying players one-v-one, so with how we play her as a left back, her qualities get to shine. Another coach might want their 3 to stay 100% connected to the back line, but for a player like Crystal, in my opinion, we would lose some of the best pieces of her game.
You see frequently at the top levels players moving positions, so I would say to youth players and coaches be open-minded to playing a different position.
Women's World Cup History
Year Winner (Coach)
1991 USA (Anson Dorrance)
1995 Norway (Even Pellerud)
1999 USA (Tony DiCicco)
2003 Germany (Tina Theune)
2007 Germany (Silvia Neid)
2011 Japan (Norio Sasaki)
2015 USA (Jill Ellis)
SA: What are you looking for from the U-20 and U-17 national teams? Neither have recently had impressive results at their respective World Cups. How much do the results matter? How do you judge whether the programs are on the right track?
JILL ELLIS: I recently had a conversation with a current starter on the senior team, whose team didn’t qualify for a [youth] World Cup, and I actually asked her what sort of impact that did, or didn’t, have on her journey until now. I guess before sharing that, if you take the emotion out of results, what is the end game of youth World Cups? Why do we have them? And for me that is simple -- to gain experience -- positive or negative.
These youth tournaments, these experiences, aren’t for the fans or even the coaches, they are for the players, and objectively a player’s development is the “why” they are held.
It would be awesome if my kid got an “A” on every quiz and every test she ever takes, but developing a passion for learning and growing from the positives and the negatives of her work, I think will better serve her long term.
Circling back to the senior player, she spoke of that experience being really important to get her to where she is today – and she said that “really, really hard” experience was a major factor in her drive to get to the top level.
Do I think results at a U-17 World Cup impact the full team? No, I don’t. Do we want to win everything? For sure, but how a player uses all those experiences to affect their development trajectory is what matters at this stage.
As to your question of our youth programs being on the right track, I think you have to look holistically at this – meaning is youth soccer as a whole “on the right track?”
We are all in this together and all parties should feel invested and a part of the process. Most of the elite players’ time is spent with their club teams, in a daily, weekly training environment, and I definitely feel big strides have been made in the club landscape in our technical focus, but we, and I mean all coaches, should always demand more from ourselves to evolve. The club coaches I speak to are highly motivated to produce more sophisticated players but that cannot be done in isolation.
SA: It’s remarkable how Spain performed at the youth World Cups in 2018. The nation that hadn’t qualified for the senior World Cup until 2015 (and exited in the first round) won the 2018 U-17 World Cup and finished runner-up to Japan at the U-20 World Cup …
JILL ELLIS: Spain were impressive in both recent youth World Cups … so why is that? Is it that from the time a little girl in Spain, or Europe for that matter, can walk, she is saturated with soccer?
They hear it, see it, imitate it – it is in the fabric of their lives. Is it men’s football 90% of the time? It is, but the essence of the game is all around them, all the time. That will enhance a player’s development, because we generally are what we see, but now add to that, those top girls at 15-16 are training daily with senior professional players, they are in an accelerated learning environment.
You can be a world-class coach, but nothing is going to push a player like the players they train against. Most of our elite players are playing same age or plus one and the first time they play two, three, four years up is turning pro, like [Lindsey] Horan and [Mallory] Pugh did, or in a college environment –- but until you can unequivocally draw a correlation that winning a U-17 World Cup equates to winning a senior World Cup, the sky is not falling and the focus should in the youth game should be on producing more tactically and technically astute players.
How we do that is a constant evaluation and re-evaluation of our development environment and a willingness to always put the players first.
Editor’s note: At the 2018 U-20 World Cup, the USA exited in the first round after falling to eventual champ Japan, 1-0, beating Paraguay, 6-0, and tying eventual runner-up Spain, 2-2.
SA: Do you want to say anything about the departure of Youth Women’s National Team Director April Heinrichs and what will happen in the wake of her departure?
JILL ELLIS: Certainly. I think so many of us in women’s soccer, both coaches and players, have been influenced by April’s passion for the game and leadership, and I sincerely thank her for all that she has done to be an advocate for our sport and supporting me on my own journey.
April is so invested, and has committed so much to the game, that I am certain whatever her next step will be she will remain rooted in her support of women’s soccer. As far as next steps within the youth national team programs, I will defer to our youth national team leaders, the technical and administrative leadership, to comment on the direction of our youth national team roles.
SA: A positive trend in women's soccer is that more countries are becoming competitive. But so far, only the USA, Germany, Norway and Japan have won world championships, World Cup or Olympics. What other nations to you think are contenders to win the 2019 World Cup?
JILL ELLIS: Yep, for sure the competition continues to escalate -- teams have benefited from their federations’ investment, stable domestic leagues and the growing popularity of the game -- all really good signs for our sport.
The ripple effect from that will be even more competitive world competitions, and like we have in 2019, more variety in the teams that qualify. I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be a larger field in 2023.
Adding to the teams you mentioned, I would say from Europe, France, England, Sweden, and even Spain could all go deep in the tournament, they have been very competitive. And then, of course, with a player like Sam Kerr, Australia will no doubt be in the hunt.