After the most successful run in women’s soccer history left Jill Ellis with nothing more to accomplish, she stepped down Tuesday as coach of the U.S. national team 23 days after winning a second consecutive World Cup.
“I’m bittersweet. Obviously there are a lot of emotions,” said Ellis, the second coach — and first woman — to win two World Cups. “This is a decision I sort of came to over time.
“There was a multitude of things that kind of came into play, first and foremost my family. They have been a part of this decision.“
Ellis, 52, and her wife, Betsy Stephenson, who live in South Florida, have a daughter who just started high school.
“If you think winning a World Cup’s hard, try putting a kid through high school,” Ellis said during a conference call Tuesday. “There’s your reality check.”
Although Ellis’ contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation expires Wednesday, she will stay on through the team’s five-game Victory Tour which begins Saturday at the Rose Bowl. She declined an extension that would have kept her with the team through next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“The timing of this is good. Not only on a personal level but also for the program in terms of preparing to start a new cycle,” Ellis said. “It’s obviously been a fantastic run and fantastic ride. I’m going to enjoy these last few games.
“This is not a job that someone sits in for 10 years. Change is good. A position like this should not be forever.”
Ellis took over the program in 2015 after two brief stints as interim coach. She guided the team for a national-record 127 games and departs with a 102-7-18 record. Her victory total is second only to the late Tony DiCicco in U.S. history.
She said she started thinking about moving on over the winter and began discussing it with her family months before this summer’s World Cup in France.
“The U.S. Soccer Federation and the sport in general owes Jill a debt of gratitude,” Carlos Cordeiro, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, said in a statement. “Jill was always extremely passionate about the team, analytical, tremendously focused and not afraid to make tough decision while giving her players the freedom to play to their strengths.
“She helped to raise the bar for women’s soccer in the USA and the world, and given the history of the program, the level of success she achieved is even more remarkable.”
That road wasn’t always a smooth one. After assisting Pia Sundhage on the team’s run to a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, Ellis managed the team on an interim basis before the federation gave the permanent job to Tom Sermanni.
He lasted just 16 months.After his firing, Ellis took over full time about a year before the 2015 World Cup. She led the team to its first title in 16 years.
A year later, the U.S. was stunned in the Rio Olympics, falling to Sweden on penalty kicks in a quarterfinal, the earliest exit ever from a major tournament for the U.S. women.
The following year, she had to fight off a mutiny after some veteran players approached then-USSF president Sunil Gulati, saying they had concerns about the performance of the team and a lack of communication under Ellis. At the time, the coach was in the midst of a complicated makeover that included the audition of 60 players and the adoption of a new formation.
Gulati responded by saying Ellis would remain coach through the World Cup, a pledge Cordeiro adopted when he took over seven months later.
The U.S. has gone 39-1-3 since Ellis’ rule was challenged and has ranked No.1 in the world during the final five years of her tenure.
Her departure leaves the program in transition again. Cordeiro is soon expected to name someone to the newly created job of general manager for the women’s program, after which a search for Ellis’ replacement will begin. With the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, time is short to get all that done.
The daughter of a soccer coach, Ellis was born in England at a time when the sport was banned for females. She grew up playing with her brother in the backyard and tagging along with him to pick-up games in the schoolyard, hoping one team would be short a player and let her participate.
When the family moved to Virginia in the mid-1970s, a whole new world opened up to her; girls were not only allowed to play, they were encouraged to. Ellis captained her Virginia high school team to a state title and won a U-19 national championship with her club team before going on to play at William and Mary. Like the rest of her family, Ellis became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“I truly think if I had stayed in England, I’m not sure I would be coaching,” Ellis said during the World Cup. “So what America gave me was kind of a dream and the opportunity and ability to follow that path, which I really had never dreamed about. I just feel very fortunate to be here.”
Ellis, who led UCLA to the NCAA final four eight times and won six straight conference titles with the Bruins from 1999-2010, said earlier this year that she was interested in coaching a men’s team. She recently got her pro coaching license, making her the only woman to pass the course in the three years it has been offered, and she reportedly impressed several MLS coaches who took the course with her.
“I enjoy new challenges,” Ellis said. “As to what those challenges are going to be, I don’t have something set in my head or in my mind right now. I just need to kind of take a step back and really kind of take it all in and see what it is that next intrigues me and piques my interest.”
In addition to coaching the team during in its summer and fall games, Ellis will continue to serve U.S. Soccer over the next year as an ambassador, representing the federation at various events and speaking engagements. She has worked for the federation for two decades, serving as development director for U.S. Soccer, coaching several youth national teams and serving as an assistant for the senior national team.
Before that, she was a college assistant at Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina State. Her first head coaching position was at Illinois, where she led the school to it first Big Ten tournament berth in 1998. She left for UCLA a year later.
Ellis’ departure follows that of top assistant Tony Gustavsson, a former Swedish player and coach who joined the staff around the same time as Ellis. He left the U.S. team shortly after the World Cup.