Winning the World Cup is, has been and always will be the No. 1 goal of the United States women’s national team.
Over the last six weeks, that priority has been made abundantly clear.
Tom Sermanni was fired as coach on April 6 for what U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati called “underlying issues.” Culturally, Sermanni did not fit in, is the somewhat vague message that continues to resonate from U.S. camp. Bottom line: there wasn’t a sense from U.S. Soccer brass that Sermanni was the coach to lead the U.S. to its first World Cup title since 1999.
So the federation parted ways with him after only 15 months in charge, and on Friday named Jill Ellis the team’s new coach. Ellis is 6-0-3 in two stints as interim coach of the U.S., and the most familiar with the current team in this time of transition after serving as Pia Sundhage’s assistant in 2008 and 2012, as well as development director since January 2011.
[MORE: Ellis unfazed by pressure of World Cup title or bust]
But regardless of who was going to be named coach on Friday, the shift in tone from U.S. Soccer is clear: Development, to a large extent, will wait; the sole focus of this team is to win the 2015 World Cup.
“The job description is to win next summer,” Gulati said on Friday.
It’s an obvious statement, but it shouldn’t go unnoticed that short-term goals bring longer-lasting ramifications for the next cycle. With qualifying only five months away, locking in on the 23 players to bring to Canada next year will be Ellis’ primary task. There will be closer to 30 players in the mix until the final cuts for next summer, but those next 10-20 players will have to wait – possibly until 2017 – to get the kind of regular call-ups and minutes necessary to properly develop at the senior international level.
Firing Sermanni put all of U.S. Soccer’s eggs in the basket being shipped to Canada next summer, which is fine. Nobody is suggesting the goal should be anything other than that for 2015. Anything but a World Cup title will be deemed a failure for the world’s No. 1 team, which is still trying to right the ship after a bad Algarve Cup in March.
The reward is obvious: winning the World Cup. But the risk is high, too. Players on the brink of U.S. inclusion, but in need of more time training and playing at that level, won’t be the focus this year or next, when a fourth straight Olympic gold medal is on the line. The list is endless, from Julie Johnston, to Amber Brooks, Erika Tymrak, Sarah Hagen and beyond.
There was some sentiment that new opportunities were hard to come by under Sundhage. Sermanni was viewed as a progressive hire in that department – someone who would not only help the U.S. win, but bring along young talent as was his trademark during his time with Australia, which starts a host of teenagers and young players.
Ellis brings her own wealth of insight on players rising through the U.S. youth system with her time as development director and as coach of several youth national teams as well as at UCLA. She is in the unique position of having seen these players rise through the ranks to the senior squad. The biggest issue with the timing of Ellis’ hire is that she will have a limited ability to show her chops in bringing along players she has identified from other parts of the program. Her focus is on 2015.
But whether Friday’s announcement was Ellis or anyone else, the choice was always going to revolve around who can win the 2015 World Cup; Ellis is the best candidate to do that. There’s no questioning those motives – to be atop the women’s soccer world for the first time since 1999 – but there is a worry that the next generation could fail to get proper development beyond just the youth levels.
But that is the ever-present reality for U.S. Soccer. There are no off cycles or rebuilding years. Winning now will always be more important than winning later, because at some point, the later becomes the now, and the mentality continues on cyclically — just win now. That, however, hasn’t produced a World Cup title since 1999, and as great as three straight Olympic gold medals are, there’s an emptiness left without women’s soccer’s greatest trophy.
The players know that — they’ve been talking about 2015 since losing the 2011 final. Gulati knows that — it’s why he felt change from Sermanni was needed. And Ellis, in her new role, knows that, too.
“I do truly know the expectation is to bring home a World Cup,” she said Friday. “That’s the focus. I don’t see it as – and this is kind of how I’m wired, I guess – but I don’t see it as pressure, because I see it as an unbelievable opportunity to be able to do this.”
Whether the ends justify the means for the U.S. women’s national team will be known on July 5, 2015…or perhaps not for several years after that.
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