Without Jill Ellis, what's next for the USWNT?
CHICAGO -- The future is only a month away for the United States women's national team.
Sunday's draw against South Korea marked the end of the U.S. team's five-game "Victory Tour" to celebrate its fourth World Cup title. It ended a 17-game winning streak that dated back almost to the start of the calendar year. Most significantly, it was the final game of Jill Ellis' five years in charge of the team.
Players now return to their NWSL teams for the final week of the regular season and, for many, the playoffs beyond that. It's also only a month until the U.S. faces Sweden, ranked fifth in the world, in an international friendly on Nov. 7 in Columbus, Ohio. And, though the date has yet to be set, it won't be that many more months until CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
So as a memorable summer comes to a close, what's next for the U.S.?
The coaching search continues
Ellis remains affiliated with U.S. Soccer and will be in the organization's Chicago offices Monday morning for meetings related to her ambassadorial role. But the team is now officially without a head coach for the first time since 2014.
Announcing a new coach before the game against Sweden remains a goal, according to U.S. Soccer officials. A caretaker coach would be an option, but that doesn't appear likely. Most of the talk in recent weeks has centered on two candidates from the NWSL: Reign FC coach Vlatko Andonovski and the Utah Royals' Laura Harvey. Neither has international experience, but each has built up ample support from players through seven seasons in the league.
Megan Rapinoe said this weekend that she and other veteran players have been consulted by new general manager Kate Markgraf about the search now in the interview phase.
"At least for the two NWSL coaches that I think are being highly considered, I'm one of the players that has played for both," Rapinoe said. "I think she wanted to get feedback on all of that. And then just in general what we all feel like are necessary characteristics and traits, what we like about coaches and don't. She's been really open."
U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn shares that expertise, having played for Andonovski for five seasons with FC Kansas City and for Harvey the past two seasons in Utah.
"She's very tactical, high level," Sauerbrunn said of Harvey. "I think she has a very good philosophy of how to play the game and then how to get people in the right positions. If you give her a board and some Xs and Os, she can go to town on anything. She can break anyone down. So I feel really prepared going into all the games that I have with her. I know how we want to play, I know how the other team is probably going to play and how we counteract that."
Rapinoe played five seasons for Harvey with the Reign franchise, including back-to-back seasons in which the team won the NWSL Shield as regular-season champions. She offered an assessment similar to Sauerbrunn, adding that Harvey is a "player's coach."
Yet the Reign don't have a playoff title to go with their earlier regular-season success, in large part thanks to Andonovski. His FC Kansas City teams beat the Reign in the championship game in both 2014 and 2015. He replaced Harvey for the Reign before last season and guided the team to back-to-back playoff appearances. (Harvey's Utah teams narrowly missed the playoffs the past two years.) And despite two championship trophies in Kansas City, there is a growing belief that Andonovski saved his best coaching for this season with a team hit hard by injuries and Rapinoe's World Cup duty.
"He's a little bit more direct and harsher than Laura, but I think players still really like to play for him," Rapinoe said. "I think he has this unique ability to really get the best out of every player and meet them where they're at. So he sort of treats every player the same but understands that every player isn't the same.
"And then his tactical flexibility and knowledge is tremendous. Even being in the NWSL, I don't think he's really able to put on his full arsenal of what he knows."
Sauerbrunn, too, lauded Andonovski for his attention to detail on the defensive end, both philosophically and at a granular level.
"I think either of them being put on this team would be a pretty fun display," Rapinoe said.
A short turnaround awaits the new coach
Even if hired before the game against Sweden, the new coach will have less than a calendar year until the first major tournament -- assuming the U.S. does, in fact, qualify for the Olympics.
Rapinoe naturally had a ready answer for whether that should be a concern.
"As long as they do everything I say," she deadpanned, "It should be fine."
She was joking. Probably. But as much as Ellis insisted this is a natural time for a change, the limited time to adjust is no small matter. The new coach can't even keep things the same if he/she wanted to, the Olympic roster of just 18 players necessitating some difficult choices.
"It is a big challenge, to be honest, depending on how the coach sort of handles the transition," Rapinoe said. "In one sense it's sort of easy -- the team is here, it's not going to be pulling in a ton of new players. Obviously we have to cut the roster down, that kind of gives you a big group to pick from. But if they want to come in and change a bunch of stuff, it'll be difficult. Obviously we have a new GM, we're going to have a new coach, so the changeover is sort of a lot.
"So I personally think they should just sort of ease in, layer in their philosophy. Obviously after the Olympics, that would be a time that they can make a million changes."
That was what Ellis did when she took over about a year ahead of the 2015 Women's World Cup. Inheriting a team with strong veteran personalities like Abby Wambach and Hope Solo, she largely worked with what she had.
"It was not trying to really change it dramatically in terms of what they were used to playing, in terms of a system and personnel, because it was so established and so experienced," Ellis said. "But that is that person's decision entirely to make and build and navigate."
That seemingly lends itself to having the coach in place for next month's games, allowing that person to get all the introductions and debut hype out of the way before players finally get some well-deserved time off over the winter.
"I think everyone is excited, though," Rapinoe said. "I think the team is excited and ready for it. I think that'll make it easier."
Once the next coach is in place, any number of additional questions need answering.
Where does Crystal Dunn play for a new coach?
Who is Alex Morgan's understudy as the No. 9 for the next generation?
How do Tierna Davidson and Mallory Pugh take the next step and lock down starting roles? And for that matter, as she heads toward yet another player-of-the-year season at Stanford, will Brazilian-born Catarina Macario be part of the mix sooner rather than later?
Will depth eventually demand a four-person midfield?
What's next for Carli Lloyd, who continues to play well and who again this weekend sounded like someone intent on showing the new coach the team needs her in 2020?
For now, those are matters for the future -- but it will be here before you know it.