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Even on victory tour, U.S. Coach Jill Ellis won't rest on World Cup laurels

Jill Ellis did a pretty good job preparing for last summer's Women's World Cup in Canada. And that showed when she led her U.S. team on an unbeaten run to its first title in 16 years.

But she was less prepared for what came next: a parade through Manhattan, a 10-game "Victory Tour" that is taking her team from Orlando to Oahu, and the unsettling experience of being recognized every time she leaves her South Miami home.

"It's one of those moments where you don't imagine what it's going to be like," Ellis said. "I mean, you imagine lifting the trophy. But you don't imagine the aftermath. It's been a whirlwind."

That whirlwind might slow in the coming months, but it probably won't stop until after next summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Ellis' team has a chance to make more history while continuing to raise the profile of women's soccer in the U.S.

"They're more relevant than the men's team now," ESPN reporter Kate Fagan said at the espnW Women and Sports Summit this month. "U.S. women's soccer is in a completely different space. So they can market themselves differently than, say, women's basketball."

Despite all that, Ellis wears her newfound fame well. She still prefers corner tables over the center stage and would rather blend into a crowd than stand out from one. "I don't think it's changed who I am as a person," she said.

Everything around her is different, though.

July's win boosted soccer to new heights in the U.S., turning Ellis' players into stars overnight. More than 64.5 million U.S. viewers watched at least part of the World Cup on Fox and 27 million Americans tuned in to the final with Japan, a record for a soccer game in the U.S. On Tuesday the team will meet one of those passionate viewers when it visits President Obama in the White House.

That bounce carried over to the domestic National Women's Soccer League, which was struggling to draw fans before the World Cup but sold out more than 40% of its games after the tournament. One team, the Portland Thorns, finished the season with an attendance average that nearly matched three teams in Major League Soccer.

And though no previous women's professional league has lasted longer than three years in the U.S., the NWSL announced last week it is expanding to 10 teams for its fourth season next spring.

"We're just riding the wave," U.S. national team defender Ali Krieger said. "I'm trying to take the opportunities that are given to me and use them in a positive way, just to reinforce that we want to get women's soccer on the map."

Sometimes that means putting in longer days off the field than on it. In addition to their exhausting tour schedule, Ellis and three of her players — Krieger, Abby Wambach and World Cup star Carli Lloyd — spoke at the espnW event. And Krieger and at least two other teammates will appear at another conference in Brooklyn next month.

In fact, Krieger's post-World Cup schedule became so crowded, in September she had to choose between playing in an NWSL playoff game or attending her father's wedding. She chose the wedding.

"It's been really busy, but a good busy," Krieger said. "I think we've all dealt with it well. I'm just taking it one day at a time. I'm trying not to look to the future too much."

Ellis doesn't have that luxury. With qualifying for next year's Summer Olympics set for February, she's already planning for an encore to the World Cup win that could be tougher to pull off than the opening act. If the U.S. makes it to Rio de Janeiro, it will enter the tournament as the three-time defending champion — yet it will still be aiming for two firsts:

No country has ever won a Women's World Cup and an Olympic title in back-to-back years. And no team, of either gender, has won four consecutive Olympic gold medals in soccer.

"That's the plan," Ellis said. "At this level the margins are so small. The rest of the world is on par with us. So it's proving yourself all over again."

Although the "Victory Tour" — a money-making, fan-building exercise for U.S. Soccer that concludes in December — was organized to celebrate the World Cup victory, Ellis is using it as a transition toward next summer.

"We're already looking at bringing in additional players to evaluate them," she said. "As a coach, that's a process that never stops."

Although 10 of the 11 women Ellis started in the World Cup final probably will make the Olympic roster, as many as five other players could retire before then. Plus, Ellis must cut the roster from the World Cup limit of 23 to the 18 allowed under Olympic rules — while making space for new players such as NWSL most valuable player Crystal Dunn.

The team has begun taking shape in Ellis' head, though the real heavy lifting will begin in January when the U.S. gathers for its winter training camp. Those are dates Krieger has circled on her calendar as well, because that's when she will stop celebrating the 2015 victory and begin preparing for another one in 2016.

"We're going to recharge, regroup. Mentally more than physically," she said. "We're going to have to ease into January and February, those games, and do exactly what we did last year.

"We want to go up. We don't want to plateau."

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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