Jill Ellis' balancing act deserves more credit

Singling out any one person from the U.S. women’s 2019 World Cup triumph isn’t easy.

The media turned Megan Rapinoe’s very good performance into a world-dominating performance. Julie Ertz won the U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year award -- a deserving choice if we must make one.

But how much can we separate Ertz’s performance from that of those around her? Becky Sauerbrunn, criminally underrated by international award voters throughout her career, teamed with Abby Dahlkemper and Ertz to nail down the middle of the defensive third. Ertz was also part of another power trio to rival Rush and the Jimi Hendrix Experience -- the midfield triangle with Rose Lavelle and either Sam Mewis or Lindsey Horan.

So Rapinoe’s selection for the Golden Ball, Ballon d’Or and Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year doesn’t sit right. She played a specific role, staying up front more than other players and taking spot kicks. The U.S. gave her ample opportunity to affect the game -- her 253 attempted passes were the most of any U.S. attacker, and she came through with 21 “key passes.” While she filled that role quite well, was that a larger contribution than the other players mentioned here?

What’s the common theme here? How were all of these people put in the right place? Who deserved SI’s top honor this year?

For the last of those questions, the answer is probably Simone Biles, the gymnast who seems to be from another planet. But a close runner-up for that honor, and the answer to the other two questions, is Jill Ellis.

That’s not to take away from the accomplishments of Rapinoe, Ertz, Sauerbrunn, Lavelle or anyone else who played last summer. Ellis could not have coached Thailand to the Women’s World Cup final. The U.S. had the best roster in the tournament.

But like Pia Sundhage before her, Ellis put players in roles in which they could excel. Rapinoe, dealing with a minor hamstring injury, was rested a couple of times and was still the only U.S. field player who covered less than 100 meters per minute. No problem -- Crystal Dunn and the midfielders had the rest of the left flank covered. Every player other than Dahlkemper and Alyssa Naeher got a break at some point and had their positions filled by capable subs in the right spots.

Beyond that, Ellis managed the most challenging task facing any U.S. women’s coach. She dealt with powerful egos.

That’s what Sundhage did best of all, taking a team that unraveled in the 2007 World Cup and putting the pieces together in the 2008 Olympics. Tom Sermanni wasn’t able to duplicate that feat.

“Coaching the U.S. women's team requires a benevolent dictator, and Sermanni was more of a laissez-faire leader,” wrote Julie Foudy after Sermanni’s abrupt dismissal.

On this team, many players have established a brand so powerful that they can be voted to the NWSL Best XI while making little impact on their clubs. Woe be unto the coach who dares to bench a player who can unleash the wrath of her fans upon him or her.

We’re still seeing that today in a couple of instances of people unbelievably taking shots at a coach who led the team to back-to-back World Cups.

“lol you know Ali is just sprinting forward and getting crosses in just to show J*** she could if given the chance,” Kyle Krieger tweeted after the U.S. women beat 53rd-ranked Panama. (Krieger, though, has a standing disclaimer that he is not speaking for his sister, and Ali Krieger showed her appreciation for the team’s depth when she claimed the United States had the “best team in the world and the second-best team in the world.”)

A more pointed criticism came from the ever-outspoken Carli Lloyd, who told veteran women’s sports reporter Howard Megdal she wouldn’t have played for the U.S. without a coaching change. Left unanswered is which player Lloyd was supposed to displace in the starting lineup. Alex Morgan (who may be displaced this time, depending on how quickly she can return from pregnancy)? Lavelle? Rapinoe?

Let’s restate -- these criticisms involve players who made the team. We’re not talking about Jurgen Klinsmann leaving Landon Donovan at home or Eric Cantona losing his place with France. Imagine the outcry if Rapinoe ends up as a supersub in the Olympics, even though the idea of resting her and bringing her on to terrify an opponent in the last 30 minutes has a certain appeal.

Ellis certainly made some mistakes along the way, most notably taking Rapinoe, who had suffered a horribly timed injury, on the 2016 Olympic squad and having to take her off after less than 30 minutes in the fateful game against Sweden. The change of tactics and personnel in the 2015 World Cup was either a stroke of genius or a move forced upon her by suspensions.

And things could’ve gone awry in France last year. The decision to take a seventh forward instead of another backup defender might have been disastrous if Dunn had been hurt or sent off.

But coaching the women’s team isn’t just a question of tossing out a ball and letting the players take over. It’s elite-level management. And few have done it any better than Ellis.

17 comments about "Jill Ellis' balancing act deserves more credit".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 2, 2020 at 10:17 p.m.

    Rapinoe stood out with the European media because she scored both goals in the match that knocked France out of the World Cup. That is what is uppermost in their minds.

    A soccer team is a chain of 11 links. I have always thought that singling out one link in a chain as the strongest is pointless. Yes some links will be stronger, but each link depends on the performance of the other ten for success.

    I am not sure how Ellis deserves more credit. She won the FIFA women's coach of the year, yet again. She will forever be remembered as the women who coached her team to back to back world cup championships. That is a record unlikely to be equaled any time soon, much less surpassed.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, February 5, 2020 at 10:29 a.m.

    I'm Not much of a "fan" of the person Rapinoe... But, as a Player; She Puts her Money where her Mouth is... and PRODUCES... Bottom Line at this Level... Congrats to her, on her Well Deserved Rewards/Awards.... Just WIN BABY, WIN.!!!  USA ALL THE WAY.!!!

  3. Ben Myers, February 3, 2020 at 2:11 p.m.

    There's an argument here that the USWNT in toto should have received honors instead of a single player.  Yes, it was a total team effort.

    I am sure that Ellis was quite sanguine about the possibility of losing Dunn to an injury or a send off.  There are numerous players on the USWNT who could have been called upon to fulfill Dunn's left back role, albeit offering only 99% of what Dunn offered.  Whenever I hear about players being nailed down to very specific positions, I cringe.  Even at the top levels of the game, players are called up to switch roles and positions and they make the necessary mental adjustments.  After all, they are pros well-versed in the game.  James Milner, super sub and chameleon of numerous positions at Liverpool, is a good example.  So, too, is Dunn.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, February 3, 2020 at 6:13 p.m.

    Now that would have been a class move, Ben. Giving the honors to the WNT instead of picking an individual. Not just class, but historic too.

  5. Chance Hall, February 3, 2020 at 6:16 p.m.

    Picking only one of the players on the US Women's team to honor is certainly difficult.  However, never understood why peeno got all that atention.  I guess bad publicity counts for more than a players ability nowadays.  It was obvious that the women played better and as more of a team with her "injured" on the bench.  And if she had missed some of those goals she was gifted it would have been very embarassing.  But that's all history now.  I'm still hoping the new coach will make his future lineups based on skill and ability instead of bad publicity.  Would like to see more younger players on the field at the Olympics.  Seems that might be the only opportunity some of them might get to make it to the US team.  

  6. Kent James replied, February 5, 2020 at 1:04 a.m.

    While it is fair to argue that many players played well in the WC, to say Rapinoe was chosen because of her "bad publicity" is willfully ignorant.  Her passing was impressive (as documented in the article), her free kicks were excellent (she has ice in her veins), and as a result, she scored some absolutely key goals.  She was a deserving winner.

  7. John Soares, February 3, 2020 at 7:02 p.m.

    I think you are being a little harsh on Rapinoe.
    She scored several important goals.
    Scared the heck out of the other teams every time she had the ball.
    Perhaps as important was a constant motivator for the team.
    This is the reward for the best overall player in a 4 week period...well deserved.
    As to "Sports Person of the YEAR".
    That's a whole different story.

  8. Michael Taddonio, February 3, 2020 at 7:21 p.m.

            The article is correct that Jill Ellis needed to be given more credit than she got. 
             The whole team should have been "ports Illustrated's persons of the year. It does take a TEAM effort to win.
             Now, going back to coaching. It is tough to coach, not doubt it. Jill Ellis, as many other coaches do, had the ability to manage the players' egos and mold a team that could perform well. A coach has to make decisions for the team, not just to satisfy certain players with big egos.
             Young players would be good on the team. It is true that some of them may not get another chance to play for the US National team. However, the day will come when the veteran players need to be replaced. In other words, developing players for the senior national team is important.

  9. R2 Dad, February 3, 2020 at 9:23 p.m.

    I think Ellis' big reward is coaching her home country right after the world cup victory, without having to sit for 6-12 months waiting for an apprpriate opportunity to open up. She will make England a Euro favorite in short order. Her knowledge of the USWNT squad will make England especialy dangerous should they get to the WC final in 4 years.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, February 4, 2020 at 9:04 a.m.

    The US is her home country.

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, February 5, 2020 at 10:34 a.m.

    Bob, You have heard her Speak haven't you.??? ... She grew Up British... Probably still has Dual Nationality... 2 Passports... I'm not sure I have ever heard her speak about her "Nationality".???

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, February 5, 2020 at 6:27 p.m.

    Her family moved here in 1981, and she attended high school and college in the US. She is a US citizen. US law requires applicants for citizenship to renounce allegience to other countries. So I think your point is meritless.

  13. Santiago 1314 replied, February 6, 2020 at 11:24 p.m.

    Sorry, Bob... I know for a Fact... Have actually seen Relatives with 2 Current Passports... Allegiances are Fleeting in these situations... How about all these kids from Mexico, USA... That Flip Back and Forth on the Youth National Teams...

  14. James Madison, February 3, 2020 at 11:40 p.m.

    Good job, Beau.  Some of the women seem at least at times not to understand that "team" is spelled without an "i."

  15. Terry Lynch, February 3, 2020 at 11:52 p.m.

    If I recall, Rapinoe scored six goals at the WC (tied with Morgan.)  Three were PKs, important but not from run of play.  The fourth was a free kick restart that squirted through everyone's legs and was pure luck.  The fifth was a bunny from six yards in front of the goal via a Heath pass with hardly a defender nearby that I could have scored.  I can't remember the sixth.  For all that, she got the Golden Ball.  Go figure.  Carli scores a lot of easy goals too.

    I've always said that Press is the best pure finisher on that team, often creating something from nothing, which is my definition of a top forward.  Vladko is figuring all this out.  Press is playing and scoring, early.  Horan, who was shamefully benched at the WC, is playing and scoring.  Lloyd is playing for now but not doing much, nor is Rapinoe.  

    As the article states, Vladko just needs to manage the egoes, but he seems to have the reputation to pull it off without the team mutiny-ing.

  16. Kevin Leahy, February 4, 2020 at 4:44 p.m.

    Thought that Ellis showed her metal by sitting Abby Wambach in the last WC. She has a good sense of her players and what the team needed. She won't be the last coach that, the players might want to undermine.

  17. Kent James, February 5, 2020 at 1:10 a.m.

    Beau is absolutely right.  Ellis deserves a lot of credit for steering this talented team through the WC.  Talent inevitably brings egos, and sometimes having more than 11 players who deserve to start can cause a team to self-destruct.  I think she also made key changes during the tournament that allowed the team to prevail under some very difficult circumstances.  The talent levels of teams around the world have certainly risen, and the US had to beat a lot of excellent teams to win.  And you know every team was motivated to beat the US as well.  Repeating as a champion at this level is exceptionally difficult.

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