How Jill Ellis went from grassroots coaching to two-time world champion

England is known as the birthplace of organized soccer, but Jill Ellis  only got the opportunity to play organized soccer because she left England as a teenager in 1980 -- for the USA.

As young girl, Ellis ran track, and played field hockey, rounders and netball in Portsmouth, England. Her soccer came in pickup games and backyard play.

“If she had not gone to America, she probably would not have been in football,” Jill’s older brother, Paul, told The Guardian as Ellis guided the USA to the 2019 Women’s World Cup title. “Back then it was 100% a male game.”

Jill played soccer with Paul and his friends at recess in the schoolyard and kicked around in the backyard, often with a tennis ball.

"I think because a tennis ball didn't go over the fence as much," Ellis told me in an interview prior to guiding the USA to the 2015 World Cup title. "Playing with a small ball kept it down. And probably because my mom would be mad if we broke a window or something -- but we still did. Sometimes we'd have an old soccer ball. We'd go around the corner of streets and there'd be a wall and we'd play all those kinds of games against the wall."

Her father, John Ellis, in the 1950s was on track to a pro soccer career when compulsory military duty called. His father convinced him to make the military his vocation after John finished his first tour.

To John’s delight, the soccer continued. First because he played on the Royal Marines FA team. Later, while serving as a Royal Marine Commander, he worked in collaboration with the English FA in a "Hearts and Minds" campaign. He traveled, often bringing his family, to nations such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Jamaica, to run soccer development projects.

After retiring from the military, John Ellis took his family to Virginia, where he was charged with creating youth programs modeled after the European club system.

"It wasn't until I came to the USA that I actually got to play on a team and officially got to suit up and be a part of something formal," Jill said.

Indeed, the soccer career of Jill Ellis is a remarkable story even if she hadn’t become the USA’s head coach in 2014 and won two Women’s World Cups.

She started coaching at her father’s camps at age 16. He’d have her get in front of 400 players “to teach principles of attack or defense,” he said. "To be a great coach, you have to be a great communicator. You have to have a vision and present ideas in an interesting way. "

She played college ball at William & Mary, and afterward had assistant coaching stints at North Carolina State – while earning a master’s degree – and the University of Maryland. She also coached youth soccer in Bethesda. "It was really good for me, as a head coach -- setting the philosophy for your team, making those decisions, dealing with parents, management," she said. "I tell young coaches, if you can have your own team and be an assistant on another team at the same time, you can learn so much."

In March 1997, she was hired to become head coach and launch the University of Illinois’ women’s varsity team, which took the field that August. Two years later, she became UCLA head coach and started coaching U.S. youth national teams.

Her announcement on Tuesday that she was stepping down as USA head coach coincided with her two-decade anniversary with U.S. Soccer, with which she became full-time in 2011 when appointed U.S. Soccer Women's Development Director, overseeing U-14, U-15 and U-17 girls national teams. She held that position until becoming USA head coach in 2014.

FURTHER READING: Bravo, Jill Ellis, the role model coach

Ellis' service for U.S. Soccer included coaching the USA at the U-20 World Cup in 2010, and assistant coach to Pia Sundhage’s Olympic gold medal teams of 2008 and 2012.

Upon announcing that she would leave the head coach position after the USA’s Victory Tour, Ellis said, “I would say even when I started this job, I kind of felt that this was not a job that someone sits in for 10 years. I think change is good.”

U.S. Soccer says that it will soon hire a General Manager for the U.S. women's national team and start a search for Ellis’ replacement. (If you’re keeping track, U.S. Soccer has about 15 full-time positions to fill in the national team coaches and administration departments, based on the Staff Directory in its 2019 Media Guide and recent personnel changes.)

Ellis’ team dominated the 2019 Women’s World Cup so emphatically that the gap between the USA and the contenders in France looked wider than it was two decades ago. After years of hearing constantly about the rest of the world catching up – the U.S. women demonstrated that the American system has kept progressing as well.

“We’ve got to always remember where the pipeline comes from,” Ellis said. “We get to see this snapshot of this incredibly talented group of players going out to win a World Cup. But we have to remember where those players come from.”

American youth soccer and American college soccer have flaws, but they’ve produced the world’s best women’s soccer.

College soccer with its Title IX boost has played a profound role in American women’s soccer. Scholarship-driven university soccer may be uniquely American, but it produces a player pool for the women’s national team that every other national coach in the world would envy. American youth soccer may be an alphabet soup of organizations, but it has spawned many of the world's best women's players.

“We must always remind ourselves, remind the Federation, that the youth piece is incredibly important,” Ellis said.

Ellis had been asked what advice she would give U.S. Soccer going forward.

“Since I’ve been aboard,” she said, “there has been much more financial investment and infrastructure in terms of youth national teams. But it’s not just about that.

“It’s about the community as a whole. Making sure we very much feel we are a part of the whole soccer community -- and it’s not just about elite players at national team level.

“It’s making sure that the grassroots and everything is wired so that, one, we continue to be on the top in terms of the women’s game and, two, that we strive to be on top in terms of the men’s game.

“Making sure we have the accessibility, the resources and funding to promote the game. The younger level is our life source.”

Ellis, besides making history as the first coach to win two straight Women’s World Cups, has this background:

The immigrant soccer experience.
The mainstream American youth soccer experience – as a player and coach.
She played and coached college soccer. She started a college program and head-coached an NCAA national power.
Ellis coached at the various youth national team age groups.
She orchestrated what proved to be an excellent coaching staff – a group with various soccer backgrounds, domestically and internationally.

In 2020, Ellis will serve as “U.S. Soccer Ambassador.” That position, says the Federation press release, “will include representing the Federation at various events and speaking engagements.”

Even better would be if Ellis played a major role helping plan and guide the future of the U.S. women's and girls national team program. Otherwise, who else among U.S. Soccer leadership has as much insight and experience, from the highest level to college and youth ball, as Jill Ellis?

Photo by Melanie Laurent/A2M Sport Consulting/DPPI/Icon Sportswire

14 comments about "How Jill Ellis went from grassroots coaching to two-time world champion".
  1. James Madison, July 31, 2019 at 7:55 p.m.

    From Ellis's perspective, it's a good time "to get out of Dodge." The next several years will require major rebuiding of the USWNT, and, has been the case in the past at this stage, it will likely involve some degree of challenge in dealing with veteran players.

  2. James Madison, July 31, 2019 at 7:55 p.m.

    From Ellis's perspective, it's a good time "to get out of Dodge." The next several years will require major rebuiding of the USWNT, and, has been the case in the past at this stage, it will likely involve some degree of challenge in dealing with veteran players.

  3. James Madison, July 31, 2019 at 7:56 p.m.

    From Ellis's perspective, it's a good time "to get out of Dodge." The next several years will require major rebuiding of the USWNT, and, has been the case in the past at this stage, it will likely involve some degree of challenge in dealing with veteran players.

  4. James Madison, July 31, 2019 at 7:59 p.m.

    So far as Ellis is concerned, it is a good time "to get out of Dodge."  She has accomplished great things as coach of the USWNT.  The next coach will face major rebuilding, and, in previous instances, this has presented a special challenge in dealing with veteran players.

  5. Richard Broad, July 31, 2019 at 10:49 p.m.

    What an amazing job Jill Ellis has done, in not just one but two World Cup campaigns. She has the coaching gene as well as the right personality for handling the talent at her disposal. She has been a credit to soccer in this country.

  6. Bob Ashpole, July 31, 2019 at 11:40 p.m.

    Good article, Mike. I bet you need to take a number and get in line to get an interview.

    The hole currently in USSF's technical leadership is troubling and seems to indicate a lack of concern by the USSF board about promoting the sport--it's primary mission. It's attention seems to focus on the business-side of soccer, pay-to-play and the professional leagues.

  7. Mark Landefeld, August 1, 2019 at 3:35 a.m.

    Someone at U.S. Soccer has to ask Steve Swanson if he wants the job and if he doesn't, they need to understand why -- that will guide the selection of the next manager.  If Steve wants no part of the changeover that's coming, the next coach is more "hired-to-be-fired" than any previous coach.

    Maybe put Steve, Greg Ryan, Tom Sermanni and April Heinrichs in the room and have them come up with the list.

  8. Mike Lynch, August 1, 2019 at 12:34 p.m.

    Michael, as always, excellent! Important, key takeaways from Jill:

    -college soccer quality and quantity is relevant and “envy of the world”

    -being a youth soccer head coach is huge in a coach’s learning. You become a better Asst at next level and I would argue a much better head coach at next level too. Jill needs to reiterate this EVERY time she addresses coaches. The youth game is where  we learn our trade. Head coaching the youth game is where we get 10k hours of that works, that doesn’t work. This must be broadcasted from the mountaintops!


  9. humble 1, August 1, 2019 at 2:56 p.m.

    Thank you.  Nice write-up.  Much respect here for Ellis' player management and tactical skills - confirmed at the WC - but she was something of an enigma - until now.  My take-away from the bit is that the key ingredient in her - the kernel from which all else came - was that she was steeped in soccer culture the day she was born - this is something we are still trying to grow here in the USA.  She's taken the marker a bit further, still a ways to go, perhaps she continues to build on her impressive work.  Thanks a million!  

  10. Karl Sonneman, August 1, 2019 at 4:10 p.m.

    Why do we keep talking about Ellis helping the Women's program.  Her success, soccer background and understanding of the culture can and should be used to fix the Men's program. 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, August 1, 2019 at 4:16 p.m.

    USSF doesn't want to "fix" the Men's program. USSF management actively opposes change.

  12. Richard Crow, August 1, 2019 at 4:31 p.m.

    As an ambassador, Coach Ellis should make an effort to connect with elementary schools, so that players can learn the game at the most important stage of their lives for skill acquisition. Getting teachers involved would provide a coaching cadre that truly understands the holistic development of young people, as well as a group of professionals that is incredibly receptive to continuing education. Helping young children and schools out could also probably create other tangible benefits such as field access, and allies in the larger community.

    The downside for U.S. Soccer is that educators and child-development experts would probably call out the absurdities of travel soccer and the pay-to-play system.  

  13. uffe gustafsson replied, August 1, 2019 at 9:48 p.m.

    Richard until the time field use is for free and clubs are volunteer only then pay to play will be in place.
    unless local government as in city or county will establish clubs as part of park n rec and pay for some of the staff. You tell me how it can be changed all I heard is pay and play is the root of the problems.
    but never a solution?
    i know how it works in Sweden but it’s really not feasible here since cities and schools are making money off the field use by clubs using em.
    and not only soccer but football, baseball and other sports.

  14. Richard Crow, August 1, 2019 at 11:58 p.m.

    Uffe. The main focus of my post is that more efforts should be made to get educators and schools involved in youth soccer. Programs run out of schools can eliminate barriers to particpation and introduce almost every elementary school student to soccer, if we make the effort. The kids are already there, so that eliminates transportation challenges. And I reiterate, teachers can blossom into great coaches that focus on the most important elements of kids' soccer: skill acquisition and fun.  

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