Jill Ellis' winning legacy? Giving USWNT a bigger voice, on and off the field
From almost the moment Jill Ellis signed on as the U.S. head coach in 2014, the national team and social advocacy were virtually inseparable.
A few months after Ellis was hired, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan were part of a group of players who filed suit over the use of artificial turf in the 2015 Women's World Cup. The years that followed offered everything from protests during the national anthem to White House feuds to collective bargaining battles to debates about the sportsmanship of scoring too many goals against Thailand in the 2019 Women's World Cup and not enough against Sweden in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Ellis took charge of a generation of American women increasingly committed to expanding their reach beyond the field.
She understood her players' need to speak up. And even as she walked away from the U.S. women's national team after Sunday's 1-1 draw with South Korea, which marked just the 26th time in 132 games that her team did anything other than win, she could hear fans chanting "equal pay" in support of a lawsuit current players filed against U.S. Soccer. She saw swaths of the crowd wearing white in response to Megan Rapinoe's social media call-to-arms for gender equality.
This friendly was much more about the emotional on-field pregame ceremony with Ellis and her family than any outcome, even as that result snapped the team's 17-game winning streak. Even as wave after wave of U.S. attacks crashed against the South Korean goal in the closing minutes. Even with a dubious offside flag.
But most games involving this team, even its biggest games, are about much more than soccer.
Ellis leaves as the most successful coach in team history, but she should also be recognized for her efforts to ensure that her players had the opportunity to express themselves with the loudest possible megaphone.
"They're showcasing or shining a light on these issues, whether it be LGBTQ, whether it be equal pay, whether it be sexual harassment," Ellis said of her team. "The culture and the climate now, I don't want to say is focused on female issues, but it's definitely more aware. The whole Time's Up movement made people way more aware of what people had to deal with. And now you have this high-profile female team. There are things out there this team can relate to."
Ellis passed the late Tony DiCicco for the most wins by a U.S. coach with her final win last week and counts two World Cup titles among her 106-7-19 overall record.
"You talk about a record standpoint, she has broken barriers with that," Carli Lloyd said. "Off the field, she is obviously continuing to fight for equality as well in some regards. ... On two different levels, her and our team, we're somewhat fighting for the same things.
"Jill's just kind of put her head down every single day and gone about what she's focused on and been really successful."
Although the result in her final game was a disappointment, much like the loss in Abby Wambach's farewell game four years ago, the scene couldn't have been truer to the plot of the past five years. Ellis looked awkward during the pregame ceremony, not used to being the center of attention on or off the field with this team. She looked far more at home standing on the touch line in the final 30 minutes as the U.S. threw itself at South Korea in search of a goal.
Jessica McDonald hit the post with a header off a corner in the final 10 minutes. Mallory Pugh missed an opportunity on a Christen Press cross. Lloyd had her celebration cut short when the assistant referee raised her flag for offside on an apparent go-ahead goal.
"It was fun-filled, exciting, on the edge of your seat, frustrating," Ellis said, joking that she wished VAR had been in place for Lloyd's goal. "It just kind of epitomized what this team is about, pushing on the edge, trying to make it happen, fighting to the end. I always say to the players we want to play well. We also want to entertain. I think the fans got a pretty thrilling last 20 minutes of that game, in terms of the excitement level. For me personally, in the moment, I wasn't thinking about anything else but trying to win. That's why we hurled everybody forward."
The field was Ellis' realm. So it was only right that she got a real game at the end.
The national team has operated in a different space than almost any other women's sports team for at least 20 years. Ellis was not unfamiliar with that when she was hired to replace Tom Sermanni in 2014. Previously an assistant under Pia Sundhage, Ellis saw the way the team galvanized the public during the 2011 World Cup. She heard, too, the criticism of poor sportsmanship when the U.S. beat the Dominican Republic and Guatemala by a combined 27 goals during qualifying for the 2012 Olympics.
What changed under Ellis' leadership was how well players were able to use that attention. Winning didn't create that. It merely amplified voices at a time when advocates across the spectrum challenged society to pay attention to women's issues too long ignored and downplayed.
Ellis was part of that and purposefully separate from it. She was the highest-profile coach in the sport at a time when a majority of NCAA Division I women's soccer coaches and all but two NWSL coaches are men. Despite her success, she earned a lower base salary in the most recently disclosed fiscal year than the male men's under-20 national team coach. She grew up in England at a time when she had no access to organized soccer because of her gender. She and her wife have a teenage daughter, Lily, who sat next to Ellis in the media conference after Sunday's game and fought back tears while talking about the support her mom got from her staff. Ellis lived the issues of the moment.
"She's in a similar situation to us in a lot of ways and has been discriminated against," Alex Morgan said. "[She] may not have been as vocal as we currently are, but a lot of women are in the same situation we are now."
Ellis was always going to be less vocal. That was her nature, the soccer obsessive who loved a chance to immerse herself in video and training. To talk tactics deep into the night with her staff and then see how it played out on the field. Coaching wasn't about making a point.
"As it relates to dealing with [advocacy] in the media, I chose not to," Ellis said. "I think it's a challenging position. You're on the road every day with your team, and you're connected with them, and yet you also have bosses and a federation that you obviously have to be mindful of and respectful of. It's walking that path. So when I chose to push for things, it was flying to Chicago and having meetings face to face. It was a phone conversation. It just wasn't in the public eye."
So much so that she still won't divulge the details of those efforts. But look at some of what transpired during her time in charge -- the annual SheBelieves Cup and Tournament of Nations, a preseason training camp in Portugal, the pre-World Cup training camp at Tottenham -- and it's not difficult to see the ways she made her presence felt within the federation.
"It's hard for me to imagine that any program in any sport would have this level of meticulous details controlled," U.S. forward Christen Press said. "I think Jill was able to do that because she was in the system before she was the head coach, and everything flourished around her and with her.
"If I think of the best, most professional environments on the men's side, they're all at club level, where you have a locker room and locker culture and all of those things. We're a team where everything we do is on the road. So every single training facility is different, when you have a meeting is different, what you're eating is different. It's a head coach's job to oversee that, and it was such a seamless thing for us that we really could focus at the most professional level."
This generation of women would have taken the stands they have regardless of who was listening. But the success on the field acted, as Rapinoe said, like "turbo-boosters" for their reach. So it was that even in Ellis' final game, the social awareness didn't fade into the background. A day before the game, Rapinoe posted a message encouraging fans to wear white to support gender equality. Many in the crowd of more than 30,000 did just that.
"It's more than just equal pay," Rapinoe said. "It's more than just the basics of economics. People want a better, fairer, more equitable society in general. We're sort of like the vehicle to talk about it right now, which honestly, as we get farther away from the World Cup and you get a little more perspective, that's one of the most amazing things about the World Cup is now we get to use this incredible tournament and something we love so much to talk about something that is so much bigger and affects so many more people."
Ellis never tried to be like one of the team. She didn't play to any stereotypes of the maternal mentor. She used to welcome her freshmen at UCLA by telling them she would treat them all fairly. But fairly didn't mean equally. Ellis stepped into her new job with the USWNT at a time when it was growing more difficult for the national team to remain the best in the world. She looked out at a global game that featured more talent, more federation support and more tactical sophistication than ever before. After the U.S. was eliminated from the 2016 Olympics without reaching the medal games, Ellis told the players that every roster spot was up for grabs. It wasn't about getting younger, though young talent did emerge. It was about getting better.
"As hard as that was -- it wasn't easy. It was hectic and stressful and difficult and full of obstacles and a lot of uncertainty for a lot of people," U.S. defender Kelley O'Hara said. "But it was necessary. I respect her a lot for doing that and sticking to her guns with that."
Ellis contends that her legacy is that she leaves the program in better shape than when she took over, with the talent and tactical flexibility in place for someone else to build on. She just isn't weighing in on whom that successor should be, leaving it to new national team general manager Kate Markgraf to work through.
The list reportedly includes male candidates including the Reign FC's Vlatko Andonovski and the Portland Thorns' Mark Parsons and female candidates including Penn State's Erica Dambach and the Utah Royals' Laura Harvey.
That it's Markgraf in a position of power to lead the hiring process lends U.S. Soccer some cover should the choice be a man. When she was hired, Markgraf acknowledged that she would like to see a woman replace Ellis. If the choice is a man, the decision will presumably be because the new coach persuaded the general manager that he is the person best able to keep the U.S. on top of the soccer world.
As Ellis demonstrated, that is ultimately the best way to help empower this team. She struck that balance better than anyone.