Choices put El­lis on path to World Cup

The coach of U.S. women’s team took a big risk, and now she may see it pay off.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By Kevin Bax­ter

A coin f lip led Jill El­lis to the World Cup.

When she was of­fered her first head coach­ing job 18 years ago, El­lis didn’t know what to say. So she let a quar­ter de­cide for her.

“Heads I was go­ing to stay, and tails I was go­ing to f ly,” says El­lis, then an as­sis­tant on the women’s soc­cer team at Vir­ginia. “It was tails.”

Few peo­ple have ever spent a quar­ter more wisely. The coin flip started El­lis on a jour­ney that will take her to the long­est and largest Women’s World Cup in his­tory, when her U.S. team opens play Mon­day against Australia in the month-long tour­na­ment.

“For things to play out the way they have,” El­lis says, “I think it was just meant to be.”

On a re­cent sunny morn­ing, El­lis needed only to turn around to see where she might have wound up. Dressed in a U.S. Soc­cer wind­breaker and sweat pants, her auburn hair pulled back into a tight pony tail, El­lis was sit­ting out­side a first-floor con­fer­ence room

at a New­port Beach ho­tel when the doors swung open, dis­gorg­ing a crowd of men in coats and ties and women in smart busi­ness suits.

If she had not quit a well­pay­ing job as a tech­ni­cal writer to ac­cept a povertylevel salary as an as­sis­tant coach for a col­lege team, she might have been among them.

“I took a risk to leave that job,” El­lis, 48, con­cedes. “A po­ten­tial ca­reer where I was go­ing to be sta­ble, make de­cent money, to jump into some­thing [that] I didn’t know where it was go­ing to take me. But that was what I was pas­sion­ate about.”

For much of her child­hood, it was an un­re­quited pas­sion. In the Eng­land of the 1970s, where El­lis grew up in a soc­cer fam­ily, there was no or­ga­nized soc­cer for girls. In­stead she played with her broth­ers in the backyard, us­ing a ten­nis ball to keep the game from spilling over the neigh­bor’s fence.

When she was 15, her fa­ther, John El­lis, a leg­endary coach who worked with na­tional teams in five coun­tries, ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to come to the U.S. and cre­ate a Euro­pean-style youth soc­cer pro­gram in Vir­ginia. El­lis was given the choice of stay­ing be­hind and fin­ish­ing her fi­nal year of high school in Eng­land or mov­ing to Amer­ica and re­peat­ing a grade.

She chose Amer­ica, where, partly be­cause of her English ac­cent, she was im­me­di­ately re­cruited for the girls’ soc­cer team.

“You were kind of an out­lier if you even liked foot­ball and you were a girl in Eng­land,” El­lis says. “So to come over here and have that op­por­tu­nity? I’ve al­ways said Amer­ica is the land of op­por­tu­nity. It cer­tainly was for me.”

The next op­por­tu­nity came af­ter an All-Amer­i­can play­ing ca­reer at Wil­liam and Mary, when April Hein­richs asked El­lis to give up her writ­ing job to join her staff at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land for a frac­tion of the salary.

El­lis, ig­nor­ing her mother’s ob­jec­tions, jumped at the op­por­tu­nity, later fol­low­ing Hein­richs to Vir­ginia be­fore tak­ing her first head coach­ing job at Illi­nois in 1997.

“My mom’s a lit­tle con­ser­va­tive. She thought it was a mis­take,” El­lis said. “At the time, there wasn’t re­ally ca­reers in soc­cer for women. It wasn’t re­ally a ca­reer path.”

But El­lis — and Hein­richs — helped change that. Hein­richs be­came the first woman hired to coach the U.S. women’s na­tional team full-time in 2000, and that same year, El­lis, who joined both Hein­richs and her fa­ther with U.S. Soc­cer, led an Amer­i­can un­der-21 team to a Nordic Cup cham­pi­onship.

By then, El­lis was also coach­ing at UCLA, where she led the women’s team to eight ap­pear­ances in the NCAA semi­fi­nals dur­ing her 12 sea­sons.

El­lis’ most re­cent op­por­tu­nity came in April 2014, when U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion Pres­i­dent Su­nil Gu­lati abruptly fired Coach Tom Ser­manni, who lost just twice in 29 games. But the losses came in con­sec­u­tive games, some­thing that hadn’t hap­pened to the U.S. since 2001. So with some play­ers pri­vately com­plain­ing about Ser­manni, Gu­lati turned to El­lis.

Dur­ing her time in West­wood, El­lis con­tin­ued work­ing with U.S. Soc­cer, di­rect­ing its youth na­tional team pro­gram along­side Hein­richs, coach­ing two age­group na­tional teams and serv­ing as an as­sis­tant and later as in­terim coach of the se­nior team, go­ing un­beaten in seven games fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of Coach Pia Sund­hage in 2012.

As a re­sult, El­lis had worked with ev­ery player on the na­tional team be­fore re­plac­ing Ser­manni and be- com­ing the third U.S. coach in the four-year World Cup cy­cle.

“They all have their own styles. And they’re unique in the way they coach,” said de­fender and for­mer cap­tain Christie Ram­pone, who has played for seven coaches in her 17 years with the U.S. na­tional team.

“Her ap­proach has been a lit­tle dif­fer­ent be­cause it’s more [about] build­ing tac­ti­cally.

“We’re kind of fi­nally putting the pieces to­gether. So it’s been a slower process with her. But in the end it’s all go­ing to come to­gether, and it will be per­fect at the right time.”

Yet prepa­ra­tions for the World Cup have not been smooth.

Last month, the U.S. was un­beaten in its three-game send-off tour, but it strug­gled for con­sis­tency against in­fe­rior op­po­nents, with the loss of star for­ward Alex Mor­gan to a knee in­jury a big fac­tor. In their fi­nal tune-up Satur­day, a score­less draw with South Korea, the Amer­i­cans were shut out at home for the first time since 2008 — a bad omen for a team that reg­u­larly boasts about its high-pow­ered of­fense.

But El­lis also de­serves part of the blame.

In an ef­fort to build depth for the long­est World Cup ever, she has tin­kered with what had been a sta­ble lineup, start­ing four dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions up front, mov­ing Carli Lloyd from cen­tral mid­fielder to wing and back again, and us­ing Chris­ten Press in a num­ber of roles.

That’s left the U.S. with lit­tle chem­istry to its attack and lit­tle suc­cess fin­ish­ing: The Amer­i­cans scored just 13 goals on their last 101 shots and got as many goals from de­fend­ers (six) as they did from their for­wards in the run of play over its last six games.

“Every­body, don’t freak out,” for­ward Abby Wam­bach told re­porters af­ter the South Korea game. “We’re go­ing to be fine.”

That pre­dic­tion, as well as El­lis’ wis­dom, will be tested Mon­day, when the U.S. opens World Cup play against Australia.

‘I’ve al­ways said Amer­ica is the land of op­por­tu­nity. It cer­tainly was for me.’ — Jill El­lis, on mov­ing to the U.S. as a teenager and be­ing re­cruited for a girls’ soc­cer team

Tom Du­lat Getty Images

JILL EL­LIS gave up a steady job to take up coach­ing women’s soc­cer.

Kent Horner Getty Images

JILL EL­LIS, with Mor­gan Brian be­fore an ex­hi­bi­tion against China, grew up in a soc­cer fam­ily. Her fa­ther worked with na­tional teams in five coun­tries.

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