U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

The decorated USWNT head coach is saying goodbye after winning two consecutive World Cup championships.

It was the moment every soccer player dreams of growing up: winning the World Cup.

Megan Rapinoe slotted home a penalty kick to give USA a second-half lead, followed by one of the most beautiful goals in this World Cup by Rose Lavelle. The U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) shut out Netherlands 2-0 to bring home the 2019 World Cup trophy for a second straight campaign. And at the heart of it all was head coach Jill Ellis.

After a nearly six-year run with the USWNT, Ellis has racked up a very impressive resume. Most importantly, she won two World Cup championships. She also led the team to a number one-world ranking the past five years, and she holds a national record of 127 games managed with only seven losses. Ellis led the USWNT to their 500th all-time victory last November. She’s making an impact off the field, creating an inclusive atmosphere for her players, no matter race, gender, or sexuality.

Jill Ellis has had the most successful coaching career in U.S. women’s soccer history. It’s safe to say the program wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for her. But come next year, she will no longer be the head coach.

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Ellis announced her leave less than a month after winning her second World Cup title. Although her contract was set to expire at the end of July, she will stay on through the Victory Tour, a five-game run that kicked off at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, on August 3rd.

USWNT head coach Jill Ellis at the first game of the Victory Tour in Pasadena, CA. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Ellis had an offer on the table to continue as head coach through the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but she declined due to the requirement of another year of traveling and being away from her family. Her daughter will start high school this year.

In a press interview following the 3-0 victory over Ireland, Ellis told the media she was content with her decision to step down: “It’s a cycle. To do two World Cups, it’s start a cycle, finish a cycle. So I feel complete in that sense.”

Ellis’s journey to head coach was anything but easy

Ellis wasn’t just handed the USWNT crown. Prior to her ascension, she assisted former head coach Pia Sundhage for the team at the 2012 Olympics. She was then named interim coach before the position was passed off to Tom Sermanni, who lasted only 16 months in the role.

After all that leadership turnover, Ellis was named head coach in 2014. One year later, she helped dig the U.S. out of a 16-year drought, winning a World Cup with the team. U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) President Carlos Cordeiro says the federation and sport owes Jill “a debt of gratitude.”  Cordeiro praised Ellis for raising “the bar for women’s soccer in the USA and the world.”  

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Ellis. One year after winning the World Cup, Ellis’s team had the earliest USWNT exit from a major tournament, losing a quarterfinal match in penalty kicks to Sweden at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Ellis was always kept on her toes, warned by veteran players to never feel too comfortable in her role. After a devastating Olympics appearance, the media and fans openly questioned her coaching behavior and lack of communication. The team also underwent a makeover, including new players and new formations. 

Cordeiro went on to compliment Ellis and the success she brought to the USWNT: “Given the history of this program, the level of success she achieved is even more remarkable.” 

Ellis created a space for all types of change

It’s no secret the USWNT is here for #WomenSupportingWomen and gender equality. On and off the field, they embrace activism and are seen as a source of pride and jubilee when it comes to the LGTBQ community. 

Ellis is one of the spearheads in what has now become a tidal wave of celebration no matter whom you love. She married her wife, Betsy Stephenson, in 2013. Two years later, same-sex marriage was legalized. USWNT took to Twitter with the good news and stood in support:

In a subsequent interview, Ellis remarked, “When I saw [the tweet], I was very moved. Our players, they’re great role models, and to have that now be something that all of us can embrace, no matter where we live in the country, I think it’s tremendous.” 

The USWNT doesn’t let too many viral moments go unnoticed.

In 2015, Abby Wambach celebrated the World Cup win with a kiss from her partner. In 2019, defender Kelley O’Hara’s nontraditional coming-out by kissing her girlfriend post-World Cup win graced social media. The USWNT is always giving us reasons to refresh our Instagram and Twitter pages. 

Love isn’t the only social-media rollercoaster these players have found themselves on. Alex Morgan’s post-goal sipping tea celebration and Megan Rapinoe’s trademarked pose were turned into memes the second Twitter fans got their hands on them. Love even made its way onto the team. Defender Ali Krieger and goalie Ashlyn Harris, whose World Cup celebration Instagram story went viral, are engaged. Basically, there is a lot of love in the USWNTand social media is (mostly) here for it.

And they didn’t stop there. The latest USWNT conquest for gender equality includes the team’s lawsuit against the USSF for unequal pay and gender discrimination. They also gave a no RSVP to the White House but a yes to a visit to Congress. There’s no end in sight when it comes to activism for the USWNT.

Jill Ellis’s legacy will be a big one to fill

On Monday, August 12th, Kate Markgraf was named the USWNT’s first-ever general manager. And before you get up in arms about her fit, you should know that Markgraf is a former national team player, two-time Gold Olympic medalist, and 1999 World Cup champion. She probably knows what she’s doing.

With a new general manager in the mix, the next step is finding a replacement for Ellis. And that will be easier said than done.

After the first Victory Tour game at the Rose Bowl, forward Christen Press was asked who she thinks the new USWNT coach would be. “I literally have no idea,” she said. “I’m in your boat.”

One rumored hire is Ellis’s right-hand man, Tony Gustavsson. It makes sense. Gustavsson has been coaching USWNT players from the sidelines as long as Ellis has been around. In fact, he was the other finalist when USSF chose Ellis as head coach almost six years ago. Gustavsson would be the safe choice in terms of consistency and trust with this close-knit team. 

Another prospect on the rise is Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey, who also has a strong relationship with Ellis. Harvey’s list of accomplishments are impressive. She was the National Women’s Soccer League Coach of the Year in 2012. Then, after Harvey led the Seattle Reign to the best regular-season record in in 2014 and 2015, she was recognized as a FIFA World Coach of the Year candidate.

Although the list of candidates might still be long, the USSF doesn’t have much time to find a replacement. Qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics begins already in January.

This October, Ellis will begin work as a U.S. Soccer ambassador while representing the federation at events and lectures. No matter who is chosen as the next USWNT head coach, the team will never let the legacy and lessons of Jill Ellis be forgotten.

Emily Weaver
Emily Weaver
Emily Weaver is a writer for Grandstand Central covering the intersection of women in sports and how the role ideologies like race, gender and sexuality fit into that equation. She is a die hard Iowa Hawkeyes fan.


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