Soccer

U.S. Women’s World Cup coach Jill Ellis on pressure, motherhood, and peacocks

U.S. women’s soccer coach Jill Ellis is honored at Miami-Dade School Board

U.S. Women's World Cup champion coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, is honored by the Miami-Dade County School Board on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Video by Carl Juste / Miami Herald staff
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U.S. Women's World Cup champion coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, is honored by the Miami-Dade County School Board on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015. Video by Carl Juste / Miami Herald staff

Five years ago this week, Palmetto Bay resident Jill Ellis was hired as head coach of the U.S. women’s national soccer team. She led the U.S. team to the 2015 World Cup championship, and since then has had to navigate through difficult personnel decisions, Hope Solo drama and media criticism. On June 7, the 2019 World Cup kicks off in France and Ellis’ team is favored to defend its title. She spoke to the Herald about what she learned four years ago, how she has changed, and what she expects from her World Cup team.

Q: How have you changed as a coach since the last World Cup?

A: When we went into 2015, we had our way of playing and we were fairly rigid in what we were doing. Now, because our opponents can change so much in terms of formation and structure, we built in more flexibility. You have to keep up with the times because all the teams are evolving.

But in certain areas, I am the same person. The connections with players and making sure my staff is empowered. The human element is still intact because I think that’s really important for a coach and a leader.

Q: What might you approach differently knowing what you now know about coaching in a World Cup?

A: I didn’t know what to expect in the World Cup because it’s such a unique path. I can’t say I know what to expect now, but I have flexibility to tack with the wind – shift left, shift right, stay there.

You have to be able to adjust with the moment, whether it’s an injury, a result.

You don’t just show up and win these things. There are so many pieces that have to fall into place, and I have a broader perspective of all those moving parts this time around, everything from scheduling to personnel to communication.

Q: Does the team, or the circumstance, heading into this World Cup feel different than in 2015?

A: We have a more chronologically diverse team, more younger players mixed in. I have to make sure I’m more alert to the pressures on a young player and make sure they don’t get sucked into the media. I tell them, “Don’t read that stuff,” Ignore whatever people write because it’s about us, this team, our relationship.

At times the demands on this group and expectations are heightened because of the profile of this team. The sport and this team have grown in profile over the past four years. This time, I’ve done a lot more interviews for international media than I did in 2015.

Q: How do you cope with the critics?

A: I knew when I stepped into this job, it doesn’t matter if you’re leading a Fortune 500 company, managing a store, or coaching, when you step into a leadership role, there is an understanding that there’s going to be criticism.

When I took this on, I knew it was there. I don’t focus on it. I don’t read social media. Sometimes, I have to tell my media relations guy, “Hey, if there’s something really important I need to know, let me know.” I don’t need to read if my team played well how well they played or if they don’t, how they didn’t.

Q: Is there more pressure to win as the defending champion?

A: This team has earned through history a target on its back. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, there’s a massive expectation to win. But this is a new team. It’s always a different journey. We will be labeled defending champion, but we’re not defending anything. We are attacking something. We want to bring home the next World Cup. It is not our mindset to protect. It’s our mindset to attack.

Q: Your daughter, Lily, is entering high school. How have you been able to balance motherhood with coaching?

A: I give credit to my daughter and partner (Betsy Stephenson). My partner really has become like a single mom for weeks on end, and she has a full-time job. I give a lot of credit to Lily, too. She’s a very mature kid, understands this is my job, so we enjoy the time we have together, make sure we stay in touch when we’re apart and we accept it for what it is.

A lot of military families go through this. I grew up in a military family and my dad was gone for long periods of time. Families make it work because you know you care for each other. She knows I’m just a phone call away when I’m on the road; and she knows I’d absolutely drop everything if she needed me, so that gives you strength to manage the times when you’re not together.”

Q: Are the peacocks still hanging around your house?

A: Oh, yes. It’s mating season.

Countdown To The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup: 21 Days to Go....

When: June 7-July 7

Where: France (Paris, Lyon, Nice, Montpellier, Rennes, La Havre, Valenciennes, Reims, Grenoble)

TV: FOX, FS1, Telemundo

Defending Champion: United States

Teams: 24

Groups...

A: France, Norway, South Korea, Nigeria

B: Germany, Spain, China, South Africa

C: Italy, Brazil, Australia, Jamaica

D: England, Scotland, Argentina, Japan

E: Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Cameroon

F: Sweden, United States, Chile, Thailand

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