U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis will deliver the keynote speech at the Washington Youth Soccer 50th Anniversary Gala. You may not know much about Ellis, but she has learned a lot about soccer in this state, beginning back in 1984. Her club, Virginia’s Braddock Road Blue Bells, met Washington’s Union Bay Flyers, starring Michelle Akers, in the U-19 national championship game.
What do you remember about that particular game?
It was during my senior year in high school, and that ‘s when I saw Michelle for the first time. They announced the lineups and they said she was a McDonalds All-American, and I thought that was impressive. We happened to win that day, and it was quite a feather because in college William & Mary (Ellis’s school) played (Akers’s Central Florida) quite frequently and we got our tails kicked.
If we asked one of your college teammates, what would be their scout on Jill Ellis the player?
Gosh, I think my college teammates would say I was competitive, pretty technical, and I actually could get a head of steam up so I was pretty quick; I played up front. I loved to compete. I was pretty shy off the field and especially my freshman year I didn’t’ speak whole lot. They would probably say I was good teammate and had their backs.
What if we asked one of one of the first players you coached, how would they describe you?
In the early years they would have described me as demanding but caring, competitive, a stickler for details and a disciplinarian. Ultimately they knew I cared about them as people first. It was about soccer but they certainly knew that I expected highly of them off the field as well. I respected them as people, not just athletes.
You’ve lived in several areas around the country, and have come to Seattle and the state many times as coach for UCLA, and the national team. What’s the vibe around the game that you sense here, and how does it compare to other places?
I love the state of Washington and I have spent quite a bit of time in Seattle. Obviously when you watch games on television you see that the people love their sports and they’re so passionate about their teams. I’ve known (UW coach) Lesle Gallimore for years and she’s a big Mariners fan. It’s kind of cool because it’s a state that loves its sports. For soccer, you see that vibe and energy from the Sounders crowds. It’s crazy to see that fan base. When you grow up in England and settle on the (U.S.) East Coast at first you don’t realize there’s this whole other side to this country. Once I was in California and on the West Coast I had a greater appreciation for just how impactful Washington, the state, has been in our soccer development and growth in the game.
Washington is obviously proud of its soccer community. What or whom comes to mind when you think of soccer in this state?
The players coming out of here are coming from a highly developed soccer state. They certainly have a pretty good acumen for the game; they’ve been exposed to good coaching at the youth levels. There’s a high degree of technical proficiency. It’s such a great place to live, and people want to live there and there’s a commitment to developing. A lot of people I’ve known in the game are from Washington. Sandy Hunt was a pioneer. Bobby Howe took me through my A license. I’ve been exposed to a lot of people coming out of this state. It’s a hotbed, it’s one of the most developed areas. California and Washington are the top developers on the West Coast and have been highly competitive since I was playing up to now. It’s a state that ‘s proven its development works.
What are some of the subjects you hope to touch upon when you come to town Friday night?
It certainly paying a tribute to the 50 years, there’s tribute section woven into it. Although it’s honoring 50 years it’s also very much about looking forward to the next steps and what will keep us at the forefront. If we’re going to get better it involves a plan, it involves a struggle, it involves hard work and it involves collaboration. It’s an opportunity to stand in front of people who can influence our youth. While I want to honor their accomplishments to date, I also want to partner with them in terms of how to continue to grow this game and develop players that can one day play for our national team.
Jill Ellis was the featured speaker at theWashington Youth Soccer’s 50th Anniversary Gala. Although born in England she came to America during her formative years, when the first youth soccer boom was well underway. At that time, the U.S. Women’s National Team was in its infancy. Fortunately, one of the team’s early stars was in her midst and guided her development.
Who are the early women’s players you wanted to emulate?
Media wasn’t huge back then, so initially it was people within my inner circle. I had only played with boys in England. Here, my teammates–Megan McCarthy who was with the national team, and Julie Cunningham–were players I had tremendous respect for. You didn’t see (the top players) enough to try to emulate, but you held them in high esteem. There was real quality to see. In northern Virginia, Marcia McDermott was an exceptional player and very skillful. The player who was most influential as far as me wanting to get better was April Heinrichs. She was our assistant coach at William & Mary. April came in and was this uber-competitive person, and I loved it. Here was a woman where competition just seethed out of her. It was tremendous. She had great feet and quickness. I remember working on my footwork with her in training. I didn’t see her play for the national team; you didn’t have that kind of access. But in terms of players I respected and admired, April is at the top.
What's your advice to all youth coaches, whatever the competitive level?
First, let’s make sure we have appropriate behavior on the sidelines. Anybody will do something if they enjoy it. Nobody likes being berated or being humiliated, and you sometimes still see that on the sideline. That’s got to end. The way you reach Millennials is not by putting them down, it’s challenging them with things and helping them see it will be a good result for them in the end. We must encourage coaches to grow and develop so they understand the player they’re working with. If I was the same coach today that I was five years ago, I’ve failed. It doesn’t matter if I won five championships. You’ve got to connect to your growth, that’s how our program consistently stays at the forefront.
Gala proceeds from will be directed to the new Washington Youth Soccer Foundation, which aims to make the game more accessible. What are the key issues in getting more kids access to the game?
It’s people being willing to go into areas where perhaps there is not a field or resources. Making the game more accessible means you have to look at the financial piece in terms of how much does a player have to pay to play. There has to be access to everyone. That’s a hindrance right now. It’s become economic and that’s a major hurdle that we must address and change. They are making strides and scholarshipping players, but it remains a major hurdle. Every little kid has played on a 5v5 side when they were 5 or 6. Kids are exposed to the game and now it’s about having a good experience. But you’ve got to make sure the game is accessible, and there are a lot of good people working hard and trying to take soccer to areas where there are these hurdles. It’s going to take a lot of effort on the ground.
How has your life changed since becoming coach of the USWNT?
In many ways it has changed and in many ways it has not. On a professional level, you can actually spend more time with the game, if that makes sense. You’re constantly watching international soccer, female or males. I’ve become even more of a student of the game because I’m constantly looking at the international game. When you’re in college you’re absorbed in recruiting. Some of my roles have been administrative or you’re coaching coaches. In this role I’ve gone back to my passion, which is my love for the game. I love the tactics, the chess pieces, and studying the trends. That’s the cerebral part of the game. On the human element side, it takes me a way from my family, but they understand and are very supportive. I feel very fortunate to do what I do with this team. It’s a fantastic group to work with. You’re able to do things with these players in terms of tactics and training that’s fairly advanced, so that makes it fun as well. I never lose sight of the fact that, if I take everything away, what this game has given is given me unbelievable friendships and memories and experiences. I feel very fortunate to have met these people. It’s been a great experience. I’m constantly trying to be a better version of your self, and I aspire to do that daily. It’s really important that you continue to not look where you are, but where you want to be.
What do you see as the keys for U.S. women’s soccer in the next 15 years? What do today’s young girls need to be doing, and the coaches for that matter, to keep U.S. women at the forefront of the global game?
When a kid graduates college, somewhere along the line an elementary, middle school or high school teacher has contributed to that person’s pathway, and that’s how I see the youth system. There are people in there that inspire or encourage or hold accountable; there are special people that have impacted a player’s pathway. The message is not just to continue to do that, but let’s continue to do it even better. The home run, for us at our level, is a technical thinker. It’s a player that has a high tactical acumen, and it’s about how do we accomplish that (through development). We saw it (in the Olympics) against Sweden; teams are going to limit your space. Athleticism becomes a little less of an advantage when there’s no space to run into. It’s really about a thought process and a technical proficiency, and that’s got to hammered home continually to our coaches and our young players. That almost is the key to a successful pathway now, and I see us continuing an upward trend.