To say that I haven't been a fan of Jill Ellis as the United States Women's National Team as head coach would be an understatement.
Following a dismal 2014 Algarve Cup that saw Tom Sermanni get sacked, though Julie Foudy didn't classify this as a "players revolt" but this article as well as a few others finally got my brain wrapped around why I disliked Ellis.
I've seen the USWNT struggle massively at times, and the question of the tactics and player selection from Ellis is worthy of discussion. Certainly having Abby Wambach at this stage of her career as the focal point in the US attack is probably not the best idea. The Hope Solo saga following her domestic violence arrest asked questions of not only Ellis but US Soccer as a federation.
But through all of these issues, the biggest problem I had with Jill Ellis wasn't on the soccer field, but in front of a microphone. Because following the Colombia game, a 2-0 knockout round win where the US had two penalties and a the Colombian keeper was sent off early in the second half, Ellis said her team had played well. This was contrary to what everyone else though, including former USWNT player Michelle Akers.
The above "expected goal" map shows basically the US creating only 1 goal (not counting penalties) against a 10-player Colombian team and for Ellis to say that her team played well goes against what the head coach of the USWNT should say after a performance like that. Which is when I started to comprehend the reason I disliked Ellis as the head coach.
Because I keep hearing comparisons between the USWNT and University of Connecticut Women's Basketball team. Kate Fagan of ESPNW used it in a recent column from the Colombia game tp describe the massive underdog situation Colombia faced and it's not a wrong comparison either. The USWNT have two World Cup titles, have always made the semifinals in every WWC and have never finished lower than third place. The US has four Women's Football Gold Medals in the Olympics and one silver, their worst finish losing to Norway in extra time in 2000. Their record in CONCACAF qualifying is almost perfect, seven titles in eight tournaments excluding the one year they didn't participate as hosts. The only blemish back in 2010 where the USA lost to Mexico in the semifinals and were forced into a playoff against Italy to qualify for the World Cup.
The UConn Women's basketball team has a fairly similar record dating back to the 1990s, in particular 1995 when they won their first NCAA Tournament Championship going undefeated. Since they the UConn Women have won a total of ten national titles and have been routing conference opponents in the Big East and the American Athletic Conference which is a reasonable comparison to CONCACAF. They don't win every game against their local rivals it just seems that way.
But the biggest difference between Jill Ellis and the UConn Women - head coach Geno Auriemma. He's a legend in my home state not just for his winning percentage but his coaching style. More importantly, is his way with words:
Yes, Geno Auriemma has a reputation in press conferences that would make your grandmother blush and a high ranking military officers salute in respect. He expects perfection at all times, in practice, especially in games and he hates to lose. He makes star All-American player Breanna Stewart run a defensive drill twenty times or so in a row because he's trying to make a point. Excellence is achieved before the game even starts, games only prove that you're the best.
So Jill Ellis, head coach of the juggernaut that should be the United States WNT being quoted regularly in post game press conferences saying that she was pleased with her teams rather ordinary performances didn't set well with me. Opposing coaches from Nigeria, Australia and Colombia say that the USWNT didn't do anything special was not only accurate, but obvious to everyone except Ellis. Or so it seemed.
So yes, Michelle Akers was right to blast the WNT head coach in Sports Illustrated. But we also have to recognize the masterclass that was her performance against Germany.
Make no mistake, questionable penalty decisions aside, the USA dominated that game and barely gave Germany and good looks in front of goal. From open play it was a throwback performance of yesteryear when the USWNT was the best team in the world. Now, the gap has shortened. Teams like Germany, France and Japan are better equipped to play not only against the USA but to win major tournaments and have been doing it for the past few years now. And it's up to Ellis to reclaim the US' appointed rightful place atop the Women's soccer world.
But the turning point for me, was after that Germany game. When a reporter asked Jill Ellis which team she'd rather face in the final - England or Japan. Her response:
Straight out of the Geno Auriemma playbook. Right up until she apologized for being arrogant. Geno would never apologize for that. But she credited the players for the win, never giving herself some credit for whatever gameplan, tactics and formation that she and the coaching staff came up with. Ellis knows that for everything she can prepare and control, adjustments she can make at halftime and substitutions that at the end of the day she's not out on the field.
As for that semifinal win over Germany, that is what great teams do. They rise to the occasion and play their best not only against the smaller teams but especially against the big teams. My Huskies do that all the time, and my dad and I sit there in amazement at how they do can play like that every few days.
Now the USWNT has not been UConn for most of this tournament, at least not until that Germany game. That was dominance, that was the USA of old, the swagger of knowing your the best in the world and then going out a proving it on the field. That is what's been missing from this team and what drove me crazy these past few weeks. That this USA team wasn't performing at its best and there needed to be more Geno-esque quotes from the head coach to keep her team on the right path.
But you're getting better at this Jill Ellis, you deserve our gratitude just as much as you deserved our complaints only a few weeks ago. Even though you don't channel your inner Geno nearly as often as you should, you proved that you can at least handle the job and pressure of the World Cup. And I will allow the USWNT to continue to be compared to my beloved UConn Huskies.
Even though Connecticut never loses in the final. You've given the USA a chance at another World Cup which is frankly all we can ask for.