Having recently stepped down as manager of the double World Cup winning US Women’s team, Jill Ellis talks to the LMA about how she ‘rebooted’ the national soccer programme…
The chemistry and cohesion of our players was crucial at France 2019. They don’t all have to be best friends, but there has to be a common purpose and a connection. Our 18-month journey leading up to the 2019 World Cup was important in creating that, because it was a really challenging time for the players. They spent a lot more time together and really got to understand one another and each other’s values.
Although we won the 2015 World Cup in Canada, we were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Olympics in 2016 by Sweden, and that was something of a landmark event for us. I met with my staff afterwards and we started to formulate a plan, because we felt we needed to look at where the game was headed and to completely reboot the US programme.
The game with Sweden had given us a glimpse of a potential blueprint for playing the US – sit low, hit us on the counter, limit our space, and become hard for us to break down. We asked what kind of talent we’d need to respond to an approach like that, because it couldn’t just be athleticism. We needed players who could operate in tight spaces and really read the game. We needed to explore how the game was developing in more depth and find players that would meet that profile. That was a really challenging period for the players, but it also brought them a lot closer together.
Not everyone could make it through that journey.
I told the players that, but I said that, actually, it shouldn’t be any other way to play for this team. They agreed at the time, but of course when it later translated into players not making the final squad or contracts being changed or you giving less experienced individuals more playing time it was very tough. When you make changes and you’re winning you tend to find people get behind you, but we were experimenting back then and we
lost a couple of games in a row. Certainly, there were players who doubted the direction we were going in, but that’s to be expected when you’re going through a period of change and growth.
We customised our team according to their strengths and brought in another group of players to create what I think was the perfect blend to modernise the team, a really good mix of skills, ages and levels of experience.
Then, when I picked the final squad for the World Cup, it was based on ability, but not just in football. They had to be able to play at their best in a pressure-cooker environment, adapt and make decisions and take on information.
The expectations on us to succeed were very high.
Silver just isn’t good enough for us. However, I went into the competition fully understanding the pressure we were all under and the high demands and expectations, not just of the fans but of ourselves. We were one of the favourites going into the World Cup, but as soon as we qualified I shaped the narrative that we were not the defending champions, but rather that we were attacking the competition. It was important for us to remember that we were a different team to the one in 2015, and that nobody could take that victory away from us. We didn’t feel that there was something to defend or to lose, but that there was a prize to go out and win.
My philosophy is all about establishing connections with people.
I really feel that to be able to give the level of detail you want to give to your players you have to empower your staff to own their roles. You do that with clarity and with trust. When it comes to the players, the ability to understand each individual and know the fabric of them, what they value, what they like, is critical if you’re to get the best out of them. Gone are the days when a coach or manager might dictate, dominate or impose. You have to work with people so they know you believe in them. But as a leader you also need the courage to make decisions, to trust your gut sometimes, and to surround yourself with great people who you trust and who feel able to speak out.
Establishing connections is more difficult with a national side than with a club side.
With a club or college team you’re with the players almost every day, whereas with the US side we might have a FIFA window of eight or nine days to be at camp. It meant there wasn’t much time for one-to-ones. What I would always do when the players came back to us was to hold a reset meeting, so that we could all reconnect with each other and with the US programme. I think we also really succeeded in creating an environment where people were speaking a common language, so the players had their own way of communicating and interacting with each other when it came to the technical side of football.
I respected the players’ club roles when they were away from camp.
I’d bring all the club coaches together at the beginning of the year and meet with them individually so that we could build cohesion between us, and we’d refer to the players as ‘our’ players, not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’. While I might text a player if they scored an amazing goal or if their side had a great game, I tried to steer away from having a technical relationship with them while they were with their clubs. It was important that I respected what they were doing and allowed them to focus on that.
Being so close to home, the 2015 World Cup had a springboard effect for US football.
But 2019 sent women’s football truly global and had a dramatic effect on the reach of the game, viewer numbers, sponsorship and investment. It injected another level of interest in women’s football, with a growing fan base really appreciating the competitiveness and excitement of the event.
We saw a huge improvement in the calibre and professionalism of the teams.
I was an assistant in 2008, so this was my second World Cup in charge. Going into the competition I remember sitting with one of my assistant coaches and saying that, while I wanted to go out and win it, I also truly wanted to leave the US programme in a better place than I found it. That’s not to knock what went before, it’s just reality; you have to continue to push forward and evolve. I’m confident that with the changes we implemented and the players we brought on board we left it in a really good position to do well in 2020 and beyond.
I’m taking time to consider my next move.
I got some great advice from a former team mate who said that when you come out of something as big as this you should pause; you shouldn’t rush it or take the first thing that comes along. When you’re entrenched in something for so long you don’t really know what other opportunities are out there in your field, or how you might use the skillset you’ve developed. I’m currently in that pause phase, but I can’t see myself not being involved with football in some capacity, because I love it.