Five months into her job as head coach, Jill Ellis is heading into her biggest moment since being chosen to lead the U.S. national team.
Ellis will guide her players into next week’s CONCACAF championship with a trip to next year’s Women’s World Cup on the line. She’s hoping to build cohesion in a group that could carry the United States to its first title since 1999 in soccer’s premier tournament.
“You kind of go into it with your vision, how you see the games played. This team has so many amazing attributes already. They’re competitive. They’ve been successful,” she said recently in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press. “So it’s not a re-haul by any means. It’s more about looking at the game and the things we want to continue to evolve in.”
Ellis was handed the reins in May after serving as interim coach following Tom Sermanni’s early April dismissal. She also had worn the interim tag when previous head coach Pia Sundhage left in 2012 to run Sweden’s national team.
A 47-year-old native of England, Ellis has had a lengthy coaching career, including 12 seasons at UCLA. She joined the full national team staff in 2008 and served as the team’s development director before becoming head coach.
The U.S. women’s team, which has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the past six years, was the runner-up in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, falling to Japan on penalty kicks following a 2-2 draw.
At a recent team meeting, Ellis showed a video prepared by FIFA that ends with emotional images of Japan raising the trophy.
“Initially they’re watching it and then all of the sudden they’re quiet,” Ellis said. “They do understand. They can’t discount what happened in the past. I’m happy that it’s still in their memory banks.”
Already her job has had its tests.
Star goalkeeper Hope Solo was arrested in June on a pair of domestic violence assault misdemeanors in Washington state. Solo is accused of assaulting her sister and 17-year-old nephew during an argument at a party that became physical.
Solo has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to go on trial on Nov. 4. But the U.S. Soccer Federation has faced criticism for keeping Solo on the roster while she faces charges, and for celebrating her career shutout record at a game in Utah last month.
Ellis addressed the controversy earlier last week while announcing Solo’s inclusion on the 20-player roster for the CONCACAF championship.
“I’ve had a lot of thought and a lot of discussions within U.S. Soccer, and certainly we acknowledge these are very serious issues,” Ellis said on a conference call with reporters. “But after careful thought and consideration, we determined to stand by our decision to let the legal process play out and have Hope remain with the team.”
Although not directly related to the team, many of the U.S. players have also protested the plan to play the World Cup in Canada on artificial turf.
Led by Abby Wambach, the women have brought legal action against soccer’s governing body, FIFA, and the Canadian Soccer Association, claiming that putting the women’s games on synthetic turf amounts to gender discrimination because the men have always played the event on grass. The matter is before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
Ellis said she understands the concerns.
“I’m OK with them expressing themselves, because what I know is, however it ends up, the team will be prepared,” she said. “They’ll be ready whatever the surface.”
Despite the distractions, Ellis has the team focused on the championship for North and Central America and the Caribbean. The United States is hosting the eight-nation tournament.
The Americans open against Trinidad and Tobago next Wednesday in Kansas City, Kansas. The team then travels to Bridgeview, Illinois, to face Guatemala two days later before concluding group play against Haiti in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 20. Chester, Pennsylvania, will host the semifinals and championship.
The top three finishers earn a berth in the World Cup field, which expanded to 24 nations from 16.
While the United States is heavily favored, a spot is by no means a sure thing. During qualifying for the 2011 World Cup, the U.S. lost to Mexico in the semifinals. That forced the team into the third-place match and then a home-and-home playoff against Italy for a spot.
Eleven players on the United States’ CONCACAF roster have World Cup qualifying experience.
Ellis said the team will have a bigger and more aggressive attacking shape, and Wambach will play deeper in the midfield in the No. 10 playmaking role. Known for its offense, the U.S. team is led by Sydney Leroux with eight goals this year, followed by Wambach with seven. Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Christen Press have five apiece.
The coach said she’ll also emphasize disciplined defense.
“The road map is there, so to speak,” Ellis said. “We know what our destination is. Now we have to make sure we take the diligent steps along the way to get to that destination.”