Soccer

Critics don’t faze U.S. World Cup soccer team coach

Head coach Jill Ellis answers questions during United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York City.
Head coach Jill Ellis answers questions during United States Women's World Cup Media Day at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 27, 2015 in New York City. Getty Images

One reason U.S. Women’s World Cup coach Jill Ellis enjoys living in Palmetto Bay is the slower pace from what she was used to in Los Angeles, where she was coach at UCLA for 12 years. She prefers driving under the canopy of banyan trees on Old Cutler Road to the endless traffic snarls on Los Angeles freeways.

Ellis was an English literature major at William and Mary, loves to curl up with a good novel and is known for her calm demeanor, even when she is under fire, as she has been throughout most of this tournament.

Her team plays Germany on Tuesday night in a semifinal at Olympic Stadium, and though Team USA has gone 423 minutes without conceding a goal and is undefeated through five games, she has endured merciless criticism for her game tactics and lineups from fans and members of the media.

She was questioned for keeping Abby Wambach, 35, in the lineup before making a switch for the quarterfinal against China. Critics decried her 4-4-2 alignment, the team’s seemingly one-dimensional long-ball offense and lack of creativity. The U.S. attack seemed to come to life in the quarterfinal win over China, with playmaker Carli Lloyd roaming and pressing higher, and Amy Rodriguez adding speed at forward.

Ellis enters Tuesday’s match facing big decisions. Should she use the same high-pressure strategy against Germany, which leads the tournament with 20 goals and is great in transition, or play more conservatively? Every pundit has an opinion.

Through it all, Ellis says she has ignored the negative headlines. She learned to be tough from her father, John, a member of the British Royal Marine Corps who coached in Portsmouth, England, and in Virginia after the family moved to the United States when Ellis was 15.

“It’s pretty simple [to ignore criticism] when you don’t open the Internet and don’t have Twitter,” she said Monday evening. “I knew that going in. You can’t let anything distract you. Honestly, I don’t know what’s out there. You don’t go into a job like this without knowing that the expectations are nothing but high. I don’t lose sleep over the games. This is the environment I chose to be in.”

She knew from the moment she was hired that she would be expected to lead Team USA to its first World Cup title since 1999. Anything less will be considered a failure.

“At the end of the day, I know that’s why I was hired, and our players understand this is the goal, to bring a world championship back to the United States,” Ellis told the Herald last year upon taking the job. “You go into it eyes wide open. Coaches understand that pressure is part of the rush of coaching, the challenge of trying to outplay your opponent is part of the fun, the adrenaline, the preparation, seeing your team evolve, it’s why coaches become coaches.”

Ellis will have full support in the stands from her partner, Betsy Stephenson; their daughter, Lily, a fifth-grader at Coral Reef Elementary; Ellis’ brother, Paul, and his wife. Lily is involved in children’s theater and is in for what should be quite a dramatic match. A crowd of 50,000 is expected.

Germany is ranked No.1 in the world, and Team USA is ranked No.2. The U.S. team won the World Cup in 1991 and 1999, and Germany won in 2003 and 2007. The game features a showdown of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo and legendary 36-year-old German goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, who secured a thrilling quarterfinal win over France with a save on the final shot of a penalty-kick shootout.

The winner of Tuesday’s match advances to the final Sunday in Vancouver against the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Japan and England.

“It’s the No.1 and No.2 teams, so it’s almost like a final in itself,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said.

Team USA will be back in full force with the return of midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, who sat out the quarterfinal because of yellow card accumulation.

“If I was drawing up a game plan against Germany, I would go 4-3-3 because I like the idea of the U.S. pressing higher,” said former U.S. star Julie Foudy. “I like the idea of the U.S. having two attacking central midfielders in Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday … both of them playing higher is better suited, and it also brings Abby on to the field.

“I don’t think Abby can play in a two-front. I think if you play a three front you have her in the game as your target high forward, keep her eye, put speed around her. I don’t think that is going to happen, but if they do go in a 4-4-2, which is what I’m suspecting, I’m suspecting as well that they’ll leave Abby on the bench again and go with two faster forwards and then bring Abby off the bench, which I think is the right move.”

Ellis kept her plans to herself Monday, but said: “I’m still ambitious to think that our best performance is ahead of us.”

If it’s not, Ellis will surely hear about it.

USA vs. Germany

What: Women’s World Cup semifinal.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Where: Stade Olympique, Montreal.

TV: FOX, NBC Universo.

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