Soccer

Early criticism of Jill Ellis turns to awe as U.S. reaches World Cup final

Two weeks ago, Jill Ellis was anything but a genius.

As her U.S. team struggled through group play at the Women's World Cup, the coach was being called unprepared, uncreative and unresponsive.

And those were the compliments.

Then, after a second-round win over Colombia, Michelle Akers, a two-time world champion, went on the radio and offered a dismal critique.

"The coach isn't handling the personnel right," she said. "The lineup sucks, the subs are sketchy, we're not all on the same page."

But now, with the unbeaten U.S. in Sunday's World Cup final, the criticism has turned into praise, and Ellis is being hailed as a genius. Yet all of it, both the struggles and the successes, were part of the same blueprint.

"We were just sticking to the game plan," defender Christine Rampone said Friday. "Realizing seven games on turf is going to be tough within itself. And that high pressure for seven games would be difficult, we adjusted the game plan."

Added forward Abby Wambach: "Sometimes I think it's lost that the game plans are big-picture game plans."

This is the largest and longest Women's World Cup in history. And it's being played across a continent-sized country on artificial turf. So Ellis planned for all that, sacrificing early results for later success.

She held the injury-plagued Alex Morgan out of the starting lineup in the first two games, for example, to have her available for the seventh. And she substituted liberally in the early going to prepare her bench for the late going.

"Those are little things," Wambach said. "But the smallest details can make a difference."

Nor was Ellis above throwing a feint in now and again, experimenting with half a dozen formations and starting the same lineup just twice in six games. By the time the U.S. arrived for its semifinal against top-ranked Germany, no one outside the locker room had any idea how the Americans would attack the game.

So when Ellis rolled out a lineup with Morgan as the lone striker in front of a five-woman midfield, it caught the Germans off guard.

The U.S. won, 2-0.

What didn't change through all that was Ellis' confidence. The daughter of a soccer coach, Ellis long ago accepted criticism as part of the job. But she wouldn't second-guess herself.

"When I got into coaching, the first thing my father said was, 50% will be with you and 50% will be against you," she said. "That's life. You have to deal with a lot of different things that are not going to be perfect."

Former national team coach April Heinrichs, who gave Ellis one of her first coaching jobs as an assistant at the University of Maryland, said Ellis' success stems from a Midas touch with players built through a combination of candor and humor.

"For me, everything is about connections, connecting with a player," said Ellis, who led UCLA to eight NCAA semifinals in 12 years before joining U.S. Soccer as the development director of the national team program in 2011. "So that they understand that you do care about them as people. Then, I think, you start to build that bridge."

It's a bridge Ellis had to continually retrofit with Wambach, a former world player of the year and the most prolific scorer in international soccer history. In this World Cup, however, she's become a part-time player. After starting two of the team's three games in group play, Wambach has played just 83 minutes since.

Yet she's embraced that to have a chance at winning a World Cup, the one honor that has eluded her in an otherwise unparalleled career.

"My role is definitely different. But I appreciate it," Wambach said. "I'm not upset."

Next, Ellis inserted 22-year-old Morgan Brian as a holding midfielder in the quarterfinal against China, confident she wouldn't melt under the pressure. She didn't, allowing captain Carli Lloyd — the player who appeared most frustrated with Ellis' early decisions — to push forward and join the attack.

So Ellis used Brian again in that role against Germany, and Lloyd scored the winning goal in both games — by far the two best games the U.S. has played in the tournament.

The Americans, it seems, are peaking at the right time, just as Ellis said they would.

"Our coaches, they make good decisions," Wambach said earlier in the tournament, when criticism of Ellis was burning red hot. "And I trust them. They're purposeful, and I think it's really important that they stick to their plan because their plan has been working."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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