A coin flip led Jill Ellis to the World Cup.
When she was offered her first head coaching job 18 years ago, Ellis didn’t know what to say. So she let a quarter decide for her.
“Heads I was going to stay, and tails I was going to fly,” says Ellis, then an assistant on the women’s soccer team at Virginia. “It was tails.”
Few people have ever spent a quarter more wisely. The coin flip started Ellis on a journey that will take her to the longest and largest Women’s World Cup in history, when her U.S. team opens play Monday against Australia in the month-long tournament.
“For things to play out the way they have,” Ellis says, “I think it was just meant to be.”
On a recent sunny morning, Ellis needed only to turn around to see where she might have wound up. Dressed in a U.S. Soccer windbreaker and sweat pants, her auburn hair pulled back into a tight pony tail, Ellis was sitting outside a first-floor conference room at a Newport Beach hotel when the doors swung open, disgorging a crowd of men in coats and ties and women in smart business suits.
If she had not quit a well-paying job as a technical writer to accept a poverty-level salary as an assistant coach for a college team, she might have been among them.
“I took a risk to leave that job,” Ellis, 48, concedes. “A potential career where I was going to be stable, make decent money, to jump into something [that] I didn’t know where it was going to take me. But that was what I was passionate about.”
For much of her childhood, it was an unrequited passion. In the England of the 1970s, where Ellis grew up in a soccer family, there was no organized soccer for girls. Instead she played with her brothers in the backyard, using a tennis ball to keep the game from spilling over the neighbor’s fence.
When she was 15, her father, John Ellis, a legendary coach who worked with national teams in five countries, accepted an invitation to come to the U.S. and create a European-style youth soccer program in Virginia. Ellis was given the choice of staying behind and finishing her final year of high school in England or moving to America and repeating a grade.
She chose America, where, partly because of her English accent, she was immediately recruited for the girls soccer team.
“You were kind of an outlier if you even liked football and you were a girl in England,” Ellis says. “So to come over here and have that opportunity? I’ve always said America is the land of opportunity. It certainly was for me.”
The next opportunity came after an All-American playing career at William and Mary, when April Heinrichs asked Ellis to give up her writing job to join her staff at the University of Maryland for a fraction of the salary.
Ellis, ignoring her mother’s objections, jumped at the opportunity, later following Heinrichs to Virginia before taking her first head coaching job at Illinois in 1997.
“My mom’s a little conservative. She thought it was a mistake,” Ellis said. “At the time, there wasn’t really careers in soccer for women. It wasn’t really a career path.”
But Ellis — and Heinrichs — helped changed that. Heinrichs became the first woman hired to coach the U.S. women’s national team full-time in 2000, and that same year, Ellis, who joined both Heinrichs and her father with U.S. Soccer, led an American under-21 team to a Nordic Cup championship.
By then, Ellis was also coaching at UCLA, where she led the women’s team to eight appearances in the NCAA semifinals during her 12 seasons.
Ellis’ most recent opportunity came in April 2014, when U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati abruptly fired Coach Tom Sermanni, who lost just twice in 29 games. But the losses came in consecutive games, something that hadn’t happened to the U.S. since 2001. So with some players privately complaining about Sermanni, Gulati turned to Ellis.
During her time in Westwood, Ellis continued working with U.S. Soccer, directing its youth national team program alongside Heinrichs, coaching two age-group national teams and serving as an assistant and later as interim coach of the senior team, going unbeaten in seven games following the departure of Coach Pia Sundhage in 2012.
As a result, Ellis had worked with every player on the national team before replacing Sermanni and becoming the third U.S. coach in the four-year World Cup cycle.
“They all have their own styles. And they’re unique in the way they coach,” said defender and former captain Christie Rampone, who has played for seven coaches in her 17 years with the U.S. national team. “Her approach has been a little different because it’s more [about] building tactically.
“We’re kind of finally putting the pieces together. So it’s been a slower process with her. But in the end it’s all going to come together, and it will be perfect at the right time.”
Yet preparations for the World Cup have not been smooth.
Last month, the U.S. was unbeaten in its three-game send-off tour, but it struggled for consistency against inferior opponents, with the loss of star forward Alex Morgan to a knee injury a big factor. In their final tune-up Saturday, a scoreless draw with South Korea, the Americans were shut out at home for the first time since 2008 — a bad omen for a team that regularly boasts about its high-powered offense.
But Ellis also deserves part of the blame.
In an effort to build depth for the longest World Cup ever, she has tinkered with what had been a stable lineup, starting four different combinations up front, moving Carli Lloyd from central midfielder to wing and back again, and using Christen Press in a number of roles.
That’s left the U.S. with little chemistry to its attack and little success finishing: The Americans scored just 13 goals on their last 101 shots and got as many goals from defenders (six) as they did from their forwards in the run of play over its last six games.
“Everybody, don’t freak out,” forward Abby Wambach told reporters after the South Korea game. “We’re going to be fine.”
That prediction, as well as Ellis’ wisdom, will be tested Monday, when the U.S. opens World Cup play against Australia.