USWNT – Here Comes Your Destiny

So here we are, at a predetermined moment in history for an inevitable coronation that seems to be leaving large swaths of the USWNT’s supporters queasy. Jill Ellis, finally, is the new manager of the United States Women’s National Team. The decision to sack Tom Sermanni in the middle of a two-game series with China was clumsily timed and inarticulately explained by USSF president Sunil Gulati, who will likely see his presidency of the federation come to a head over the next two years with a vital World Cup for a men’s program that has been making halting progress forward for the better part of two decades now before next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada serves as perhaps the USWNT’s last best chance at a world championship before a venerated generation rides off into the sunset.

It’s that pressure to win that likely prompted the controversial sacking of Sermanni after the USWNT’s unsteady display in the Algarve Cup at the beginning of the year. But the circumstance of the dismissal perhaps cast an icy pall on the search to fill a job which should theoretically be one of the best in the world in women’s football. It may have also winnowed the pool of candidates, with the firing coming in the middle of the NWSL season doing the USSF no favors either. Institutional matters aside, opinion was largely divided amongst a fanbase left to argue fierily amongst itself as to whether the plug had been pulled out of necessity or out of impatience and insecurity by Gulati and U.S. Soccer CEO and secretary general Dan Flynn.

The temperature of the room has plunged precipitously since Ellis’ name was seriously linked with the job she’s seemingly been groomed for for over a decade. The icy reception that the prospect of Ellis taking over in the run up to Friday’s announcement has seldom been seen before from a fanbase that has usually left the grousing until managers are settled upon their throne. The venom has come swift and hard in the face of Ellis’ candidacy likely making for uncomfortable reading for the USSF illuminati, though you suspect popular opinion ceased being a barometer of any import to those pulling the strings long ago.

Part of the problem is that when a candidate gets groomed for success for an age without taking that final step as it feels like Ellis has, the public tends to walk away with the feeling that they’re having something (or someone) shoved down their throat. For the longest time, it’s felt like all that was missing from the tale of Ellis’ ascension to the top chair in American women’s soccer has been the exclamation point that critics could be bludgeoned over the head with as they expressed doubt over her suitability for the job. When Ellis narrowly lost out in the NCAA Tournament final in 2000 to North Carolina, it seemed inevitable that that exclamation point would arrive sooner rather than later.

Inevitability is just a thirteen letter word though, and despite six straight Pac-10 titles, the biggest prize never came. There’s certainly an argument to be made over how unlucky the club was to have gone down to penalties in the final in 2004 to Notre Dame, but that was largely the high point in Ellis’ reign in Westwood. The Bruins were humiliated by a rampant Portland team in the final a year later, their last title game appearance under Ellis. The 2007 semi-final defeat to USC, in a match they had been leading 1-0 and against a team they had traditionally owned, was in essence the beginning of the end, with the prospect of the Trojans winning the nationally title Westwood had lusted after for so long a grim sight indeed.

By the end under Ellis, UCLA was a shell of its former self, having effectively been neutered by a Stanford program that had gone from being the little sibling the Bruins had beat up on regularly, not beating UCLA in six seasons, to the side that went 4-0-0 against the Westwood side in Ellis’ final two years, scoring nine goals and conceding just one. The Card had evolved and turned into the monster UCLA had never quite grown into. By the time Ellis left after a 2010 that had seen the club with its worst league finish since 1996 and worst NCAA tournament showing since 2002, few were tipping the long-time Bruins boss for the USWNT job.

While Ellis’ reputation had been damaged by her inability to win the biggest prize at UCLA and the club’s fading fortunes in the final few years of her tenure, the most luster had been lost in the insipid performance of the U.S. at the U20 World Cup in Germany in the Summer of 2010. Already with crushing expectations after the win just a few years earlier in Chile, Ellis’ team wilted in the German heat, wheezing through group stage matches against Ghana and South Korea before a brutal quarterfinal against eventual runners-up, Nigeria. The penalty shootout defeat to the African side remains controversial, but the Americans had also let a lead slip in the final quarter of an hour, looking defensively frail throughout. It remains the U.S.’ worst finish in the U20 age group at a FIFA competition. Talent certainly cannot be an excuse, as Ellis’ team had eighteen of twenty-one players who are or have played in the NWSL, with another (Sam Mewis) likely to join next year and one other (Casey Short) likely to have played at the top level if not for injury.

Ellis’ performance as USSF’s Director of Development may only be tangentially related to her role as the new USWNT head coach, but one could argue said performance doesn’t do her many favors. The U17 age group continues to be a blight on the U.S.’ overall copy, the team having bowed out meekly in the group stage of the 2012 U17 World Cup amidst an embarrassing raft of “group of death” excuses from apologists, while the group missed out on the 2014 edition of the tournament, failing to qualify for the second time in three cycles under the stead of former Ellis lieutenant BJ Snow who, bizarrely, was kept on after the failure. The U20 World Cup success of 2012 under Steve Swanson certainly can’t be overlooked, but few are tipping the 2014 U20 team to defend that crown. Major questions must be asked over the development of young players over the past few years as well, with the next two draft classes for the NWSL looking perilously short of strength in depth and players able to make a potential impact on the USWNT.

Ironically, Ellis was afforded one final opportunity to make her case this past week when the USWNT, under her care as caretaker boss, headed north to take on a determined Canada side. The result was a plodding, unconvincing draw that did little to set minds at ease. The brutal and maddening reality is that there is little room for any real evaluation until the real thing next Summer. A set of upcoming friendlies against European contender France will certainly provide hints, but the utterly uncompetitive CONCACAF qualifying section will certainly do the USWNT no favors in the long-term development of the squad. By the time the Algarve Cup rolls around next year, the U.S. will clearly be attached to Ellis through the Summer for better or for worse.

There are no more heads to place on pikes, no more contingencies, no more Plan B’s for the U.S. 2015 is the last, best hope for this generation of players to win the world title that’s eluded them since 1999, and that generation’s fate is now irrevocably tethered to Ellis. Gulati and Flynn are gambling on the USWNT’s new boss being the leader to get that squad over the line in Vancouver on July 5. They, and a skeptical base of supporters, will be hoping desperately that the future does not reflect the past as far as Ellis is concerned and that this saga will scarcely be remembered some fourteen months from now.

16 thoughts on “USWNT – Here Comes Your Destiny

  1. VaFan

    I sincerely hope there is more to this than meets the eye.

    On the surface, it looks like Gulati and the Old Guard — and I am not even sure who that is — painted themselves into a corner by awkwardly canning a head coach who was not even half-way through an adaptive process that most critics (presumably including Gulati) thought was absolutely necessary.

    Then they “play it safe” by hiring an available coach whose track record at the upper levels is marked by repeatedly falling short of expectations. And this comes at a moment when the USWNT coach desperately needs to be someone who can manage change and innovation and who can manage players who have much bigger personalities than the coach apparently does. On the surface, it looks like this decision basically is to hope that change is not necessary until after the 2015 WWC.

    As a long-time fan of the USWNT, I felt this squad needed a jolt of new energy and innovation — a fresh approach — and the courage and support to make changes. I hope I am wrong, but this feels like a very unambitious decision, one designed to provide short-term comfort to the Old Guard on the pitch and in the boardroom.

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  2. kernel_thai

    Excellent summary of the career of the woman given the biggest job in WoSo. Kind of amazing when u consider the money lavished on Klinsmann because of his WC pedigree. Perhaps they r paying Ellis minimum wage. Ellis seems to be in a no win position. If the NT does manage to win the prize many will say they won in spite of the coach as they had done at the Olympics with Sundhage. If she loses this decision will be second guessed until the cup is finally hoisted.

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  3. KC

    Outstanding piece. From a development standpoint, I believe the impact the ECNL is having will allow USSF to keep things moving on the youth side. I for one, believe the U20’s have a good chance to show well this summer and into the future. It will be interesting to see who takes Jill’s spot. If BJ rides her coattails to another appointment we are doomed.

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  4. Hooked001

    Most of the time reasonable minds can differ about whether the person selected for a particular job is a good fit, while acknowledging that the person is competent to do the job. Here, IMO, the problem is that few likely believe Ellis is competent to do the job she’s been given. There is nothing in her background to suggest she can win competitive international matches, and there are reasons to actually believe that she can’t win at that level. In short, there is no reason to believe that the team will be close to successful under her leadership.

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  5. Liz

    great article. selection committee of Gulati, Flynn and Heinrichs didn’t go further than a few doors down the hall to make their selection. If theobjectivel is to win the World Cup, Ellis has not shown she can respond tactically to what is unfolding on the field in a close, competitive game. Based on the recent Canada fixture, I don’t have faith she will improve.

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  6. Terry Lash

    Gulati is the failure here. He should leave US Soccer. How can that happen? Who can get rid of him?

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  7. Steve

    Thanks for a well-written, comprehensive piece. You make several good observations on her career. I agree that the 2010 U-20 failure weighs more heavily against her than not reaching the pinnacle with UCLA. That was not simply a narrow loss on PK’s, but as you note, a horrible performance during the tournament. And, they just played a really poor brand of soccer – hit to Syd and Hayes/Bywaters and hope for the best.

    Another note: none of the luster from the 2012 U20 triumph should shine on Ellis, as she oversees the U17s and below. April oversees the U20s.

    Final note – if USSF gives Ellis credit by her association with Pia’s successes, I will give her failing marks for her promotions of Snow, a coach who utterly failed at UCLA and the U17s.

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  8. Bob Burns

    I wonder if the problem has less to do with Ellis, then the ECNL league most the top youth players have all migrated over too? I say that because the U20 team, made up of players who came before ECNL, seemed to have made a better showing then the U17, made almost exclusively of players out of the ECNL system.

    Yes of course it has to do with coaching, but there seems to be more then that going on. Never mind the poor results, when I watched one of the games from Jamaica on my computer the U17 goalkeeper didn’t know they weren’t allowed to put the ball down and pick it up in the run of play. While I blame JE for allowing the selection of such a player with such a painfully low soccer IQ, I can’t help but also notice the fact that our “best players” no longer even know basic rules is an ominous sign that the clubs and league where these players came from seems to go backwards in terms of development.

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    1. Hooked001

      At a U15 ECNL Showcase game last month, I heard one BCS-level coach comment to a youth national team coach before the game began: “If you’ve got athletes, you’ve always got a chance.” The ECNL exists by giving the college coaches what they want.

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    2. KC

      The Goalkeeping Gaff you mention in the u17’s is purely on BJ and his choosing to select two athletic yet totally unproven GK’s while not even considering a large crop of eligible keepers ahead of the tournament. embarrassing is the only way to put that. That in mind, the field players on that team showed they can dominate. Mal Pugh, Zoe redei, Mia Gyau and many others on that team are truly special players that show an extremely bright future for the US Women. The U 17 WC bid was purely on BJ and an extension of Jill

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  9. Step Back

    “Venom” from “the fanbase”. Size of sample? How many fans’ voices were “consulted” for this article? My guess is that it’s just a few (20?) from (I’m guessing) a few hundred thousand fans nationwide. But that the few are extremely vocal and extremely venomous and repeat, by writing on prominent internet soccer comment sites, basically the same sentiments/arguments over and over and over and over and over so that their emotional impact grows and eventually becomes the voice of all of America’s USWNT fans. And my suspicion, my feeling, is that these fans, who are pretty articulate in their writing, don’t really know THAT much about what’s happening, about Jill Ellis’ coaching capabilities; and that these anguished voices have some personal agenda that they just REALLY want to forward. And that for all the intensity of their feelings, when one really boils down their arguments, one finds that these fans simply like certain players more than others. They want certain players to play and they don’t think they will under Jill Ellis, so they’re throwing a fit. It’s possible that these fans are right, but it’s also possible they aren’t. And the thing is: We’ll never know because you can’t try both versions out at the same time. You can’t play a certain lineup, then say “ok, now, we’re gonna go back and play this game over with a different lineup.” Of course if one lineup loses then critics will say “the other lineup would have won.”
    And to ascribe SO much power to a coach….I don’t buy it. Also, in my opinion, people are overreacting to recent games. The scrutiny that everything receives now in this day and age is too much. We, I think, dominated possession largely in Algarve losses and in the Canadian game. Goals don’t always happen. Soccer fans should know this. It’s a complex thing – kicking that ball around with a lot of people in the area. Great plays don’t always happen. We’re still dominating play in these games that don’t have great final scores. This happens to EVERY team. Don’t read too much into EVERYTHING. Or just interpret things correctly, not incorrectly.
    And all this pressure to WIN. Yeah, of course, we want to win. But people are writing about it as if it’s a mandate from God, from All That Is Good. That if we don’t win it’s like the absolute worst thing that could happen on planet earth. A personal affront. As if we fans are OWED a victory because we’re big fans. There’s a price if you want my support. And I sure as heck ain’t gonna train and play – You do it. And Win! As if the players are specimens in a jar that we huge fans oversee and pull puppet strings upon, try to pull them, WIN, GIRLS, WIN! IT’S BEEN 15 YEARS! IF YOU DON’T WIN YOU HAVE COMMITTED A FELONY, MURDER UPON MY PURE-AS-THE-DRIVEN-SNOW INSCRUTABLY VIRTUOUS SOCCER FAN SOUL!!”
    We need to do what probably the 399, 970 out of 400,000 other USWNT fans are doing and chill out, enjoy the games, have faith in the decisions of the team, and above all support and root for the team. You can voice your opinion but also admit you don’t KNOW much about it, being on the outside. It’s supposed to be fun to be a fan, not torture. Go with the flow, folks, support your team. Enjoy the ride. It’s a team you once loved and now appear to hate. You don’t call the shots, no matter what you write or how intensely you want certain things to happen. Give it up. Let go. Be quiet and watch and try to enjoy. Don’t hate people you don’t know. Don’t assume you know things you really don’t know. Look up the word “know” in the dictionary and reflect upon how it applies to you. You can have your agenda but realize it’s utterly meaningless.

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    1. Hooked001

      Wow! A lot of words. None of which make the case that the new coach was a good choice as head coach. Instead, an argument that nobody on the outside knows much, so “[b]e quiet.” It is true that 3 people made the choice at issue and they didn’t poll the public. Nonetheless, just because those 3 people have total control does not mean that they should not be held accountable for their choice. One does not have to “hate” any of these people to question their judgment. In fact, one can attribute the best intentions to them (as I do) and still disagree with their judgment. The beauty of this debate is that there is going to be an answer at the WWC. As a fan, I hope that the US WNT wins it all. As a fan, I fear that they won’t come close.

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  10. Step Back

    I’m a very big fan of the team but there are bigger. I don’t know much about Gustavsson. Tony D. I remember and I always have liked what I’ve seen and heard from him. A premise of my argument is that I just don’t know much about this stuff. I can’t say with any amount of confidence if Jill was the best choice. I’ve never been to one of her practices, never been to one of Tony G’s or Tony D’s. Never listened to them give a pre-game or halftime talk. I did write that upset fans may be right, but I wanted to stress that they may not be, that their rage is out of proportion to their real level of knowledge about the subject. And I think it’s healthy as a fan to know our place in this whole scenario, (that we have no say and really don’t know that much of the inner workings) and that the way I think we can most positively affect matters is to be supportive. A relaxed, positive atmosphere I feel is conducive to good soccer, not a super uptight one. And I am not saying that last description applies to you, as I sense you’re a good, supportive true fan of the team. I too have my favorite players but I don’t feel it’s really my place to trumpet their names. I have faith the coaches will make the best decisions. But you’re right to say that a coach should be held accountable and that it’s possible that they may not make all the best decisions. However, as I said before, if a loss occurs one can’t know whether a lineup change would have led to a different outcome. I feel like I’m starting to go in circles so I’ll stop now.

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  11. Hmmm

    Is there a reason Steve Swanson is never considered? I’ve seen quite a few college teams play, and UVA has to play some of – if not the most – attractive, possession-based, smart soccer out there. His U20s also do very well. Just not his time yet? I feel like if you combined his style of soccer with the hyper athletic forwards the US is known for that could be something special.

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    1. Hooked001

      IMO, it would be very difficult to walk away from a successful, high-profile college job where you could stay for a decade and where the school allows you to take some time away from the team to coach the U20s and instead take a job from which you could be fired in less than 2 years and in which lasting past 4 years would be amazing. So, unless you were ready for retirement within 4 years, you’d be looking for another job pretty soon and probably in a college setting that requires rebuilding. Not an attractive option, IMO. A long way of saying that UVa’s coach could probably do the job, but why would he want it at this point in his life?

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    2. VaFan

      I totally agree about both Swanson’s qualifications and UVa’s style.
      Even before Morgan Brian arrived, UVa played a lovely and effective possession-oriented game, even without great depth in talent, and that ball-control style is Swanson’s doing. Moe, of course, is in the perfect situation at UVa, both for her style and for the team. As Greg Ryan of Michigan said after playing UVa in the NCAA’s, “Stanford plays a similar style, but Virginia does it at a much higher pace, not only with the ball, but when they’re out of possession, they are so quick to possess. They’re very much like FC Barcelona.”

      An overlooked aspect of Swanson’s coaching is that he truly develops players. Most of his players noticeably improve their games from one year to the next, becoming much more complete and much, much more comfortable with the ball. Time after time, I have watched highly-touted players (especially forwards and midfielders) arrive at quality college programs and then sort of plateau — still dangerous, but never maximizing their games. An example, just to antagonize UNC fans: Think how breath-taking Summer Green would be now if she played for Swanson at UVa.

      My own opinion is that Steve would be the perfect guy to take over the WNT after the 2015 WWC. Presumably, that is the point at which we start to seriously turn over that squad, bringing in new young players with whom he is already familiar, such as those from his 2012 U20 squad, the current U23’s, and elsewhere. And, finally, we would get to see the USWNT play a more elegant possession game.

      But a huge part of me would hate to see Swanson leave Charlottesville, where I go 8 or 10 times each fall to see the most attractive play in college soccer.

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