NEW YORK – If you’ve followed the United States women’s national team even remotely over the past year, you’ve heard this common – even if potentially cliché – theme about how they view defending their World Cup title: this is a new cycle, and they are trying to win a World Cup just like everyone else. “Defending” is a matter of the past; their focus is on the here and now.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis burned that into her players brain in the fall, an idea they’ve since bought into in full. The words were echoed throughout Friday as the 23 players who will represent the U.S. at this year’s World Cup took part in a big media-day sendoff at Twitter’s headquarters. And while there’s an element of team psychology to the whole thing – a shared buy-in to a team mentality – there’s no denying how different this 2019 team is from the one which lifted the trophy four years ago.
Eleven players – just under half the roster – are heading to a senior World Cup for the first time. Alex Morgan is no longer the young star of the near future, but a captain and a veteran, the face of the team which has taken over everything from magazine covers to the entirety of Times Square billboards. Alyssa Naeher is the starting goalkeeper; longtime incumbent Hope Solo was banished from the team in 2016. Becky Sauerbrunn is the only remaining defensive starter from 2015, when the U.S. put in arguably the greatest single-tournament defensive display in history.
Lost in the change of personnel, though, is how much Ellis has evolved. The U.S. coach has plenty of doubters, those who believe she somehow ‘lucked’ into winning the 2015 World Cup based on suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, despite having to make the right choices (including Morgan Brian) to fill those voids. Those were only further fueled by the United States’ 2016 quarterfinal exit from the Olympics, the first time the American women missed the semifinal stage at a major tournament.
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Now Ellis enters this 2019 tournament with a chance to be the first coach to lead her team to back-to-back World Cup titles (Germany’s 2003 and 2007 triumphs happened under different coaches), and she carries with her the wisdom of a coach who has failed in some experiments.
“I think there’s always valuable lessons,” she said Friday. “Going through 2015, for me in terms of major tournament, senior level, it was the first time. One of the things that’s got to be common is, it’s not a smooth ride. It’s not a perfect ride… learning that and not getting stressed – it’s about getting points and it’s about advancing. Style points get pushed aside a little and making sure that you are getting things done. It’s OK to not look perfect.”
The U.S. women in 2015 were under immense pressure as they struggled through the group stage. Combined with off-field matters – continued talk of the artificial turf controversy, an omnipresent spotlight on Hope Solo’s legal matters – Ellis spent much of her time reiterating that her team remained “in the bubble,” removing themselves from the criticism which surrounded them.
That bubble still exists (even if it varies by player), but there is tangibly less tension around this team then there was in 2015. It’s a “unified group,” as Ellis said on multiple occasions Friday: “You coach to coach. You don’t coach to satisfy media, to satisfy fans.”
Ellis’ words ring of a coach who has both learned from her failures in 2016 and who has enjoyed the full backing of the federation despite them. This is Ellis’ first full World Cup cycle, having taken charge of the team just over a year before the start of the 2015 tournament. And in that sense, this is truly her team, molded in the image that she has crafted. This World Cup, as much as the 2015 one, will define her legacy.
From hosts France, to a dangerous England side, and the wild cards which could be – Australia, the Netherlands – this is as deep a crop of contenders that the women’s game has ever seen. And while the Americans could be fairly dubbed the tournament favorites, they could equally be headed home in the quarterfinal (possibly against Les Bleues), an inevitable reality they finally faced in 2016.
“That’s the job,” Ellis said. “That’s why you go into this. I think part of it is, you don’t’ go into coaching if you’re not willing to step into that moment and go, ‘OK, this is what it’s going to take.’ It’s about winning and losing.”
Winning and losing. As black and white as it gets for the Americans – and a challenge Ellis confidently embraces. The pressure leads back to a lesson her father – also a coach – taught her very early in her career:
“You’re not a coach unless you’ve been fired. That’s part of the job.”
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