In our breakdown of what went wrong for the United States against Sweden, a lot of things weighed out on the “Jill Ellis’ fault” side of the scale.
Rostering Megan Rapinoe, bad subbing decisions, switching players around too much - you can lay all of those solidly at Ellis’ feet. Other things weren’t, like players unable to execute well, and to some extent, lack of adaptation on the field. If Alex Morgan or Carli Lloyd has a slightly better day, if just one player is a foot over in the box, things are different. This game was won and lost in the margins, although the fact that Sweden pushed the U.S. into that marginal space is still cause for some concern.
Ellis is now supposed to have a chat with her bosses at USSF over what happened and, presumably, what’s next.
Per Kate Markgraf, USSF Pres Sunil Gulti says team is not in crisis mode, will soon sit down for debriefng with Jill Ellis #USWNT— Dan Lauletta (@TheDanLauletta) August 16, 2016
Despite an earliest-ever exit from the Olympics for the U.S., Ellis may have more job security than you’d expect. She’s had a lot of success in terms of win-loss record until now and she helped win the U.S. a World Cup, which is certainly not something to take lightly.
To fire or not to fire
Was that Olympic performance bad enough to justify immediately dismissing Ellis as head coach? Consider that despite this iteration of the USWNT being better than its predecessors, it still had problems in group, problems that Sweden figured out how to exploit. And looking at some of the friendly results leading up this tournament, you could sense that this kind of loss might have been coming. That tight 1-0 friendly against South Africa in July previewed the team we saw struggling to put goals away, and much of group stage was a testament to a team that was being forced to win in the margins. This performance was not a total surprise, only this time instead of gutting it out as they’ve done so many times before, they lost at the worst possible time, in a highly-visible major tournament in the knockout rounds.
On the other hand, the team under Ellis has also managed to put together some great, creative, attacking soccer while also establishing a very solid back line - one with which Ellis tinkered at her peril this summer. She’s also assembled what is sometimes a tremendous midfield, but once again she was undone by that constant tinkering.
If USSF were to fire Ellis, this is a convenient time, despite her signing a multi-year contract extension with US Soccer after the 2015 World Cup. The team is in the break between tournaments, that trench between the end of the Olympics and the beginning of the next World Cup. The next two years will be punctuated by She Believes (or perhaps a return to the Algarve Cup), but nothing as crucial and attention-getting as the World Cup/Olympic period. Now is the time to take the engine apart and get messy while rebuilding it. Ellis has said she wants to get the roster turned over for 2019 and has gotten that process started in between big tournaments. But if you fire her now, whoever steps in has 2017 and 2018 to assess the roster, look at talent from the youth teams or NWSL, and get them firmly integrated in time for World Cup qualifying while at the same time phasing out older players.
It would certainly cost USSF to fire Ellis, at least financially. Based on Sunil Gulati’s statement that “As we...build towards the 2019 World Cup in France, we think Jill is the ideal person to lead the next generation of the Women’s National Team,” it seems like this multi-year deal is good through 2019 or thereabouts. Buying out the remaining years on her contract might not be worth it to USSF when weighed against the desire to get the roster turned over, not when Ellis is already doing that to some extent.
But let’s look at the players that Ellis actually brought to the Olympics. Of the younger players, those who you might consider non-veterans, she’s only really brought up Mallory Pugh on her own. Morgan Brian got her first cap in 2013 under Tom Sermanni. Crystal Dunn - Tom Sermanni. Lindsey Horan and Julie Johnston - Sermanni. Ellis’ other outsider pick for the Olympic roster, Allie Long, is 29 and almost certainly won’t still be in the pool for 2019.
To be fair, Ellis only really got to start the turnover process after the World Cup. She basically inherited a team after Sermanni’s surprise firing in April 2014 and had about a year to prep for Canada, during which time she certainly wasn’t going to be phasing out the likes of Abby Wambach or Shannon Boxx whether she wanted to or not. It was only after the World Cup was over and won that she could actually start looking around for new talent, and she still had quite a roster of established names even after a slew of retirements and pregnancies thinned out the pool. If you look past the Olympic roster, she’s clearly keeping an eye on players like Rose Lavelle, Emily Sonnett, and Adrianna Franch. So perhaps it’s fair to give her more time now to really start looking at the youth national teams and the younger players making their marks in NWSL.
Who else could do the job?
There’s also the question of who you would get to replace her. The pool of qualified coaches who could handle the intensity and expectations of a program like the USWNT is fairly small; this is a program that expects coaches to keep the United States at #1 at all costs, an attitude that has hampered the very development issues they face before 2019.
So you would need a coach who could not only help advance the team’s tactical performance, but also has the strength of personality to handle roster issues like telling Carli Lloyd she’s not on the roster in 2019, should that come to pass.
There are some candidates already within the U.S. Soccer system like current U23 and Virginia head coach Steve Swanson, or possibly U20 head coach Michelle French. Current WNT assistant coach Tony Gustavsson was on the short list after Tom Sermanni was fired, as was former WNT assistant coach Erica Walsh, who is currently head coach at Penn State. That’s not to say all those names are good names, but they would probably be in consideration.
There are NWSL coaches who could be in the conversation like Mark Parsons in Portland or Laura Harvey in Seattle. Then again, the jump from club to NT is considerable, and a couple of good seasons aren’t exactly the same as trying to get 25 of the best American players ready to take on other teams doing their own World Cup prep. Randy Waldrum is an NWSL coach with some national-team-level experience (with Trinidad & Tobago) who could go on the list.
There’s other national team coaches; perhaps England’s Mark Sampson or Australia’s Alen Stajcic if you could convince him to leave the Matildas; perhaps even former Japan head coach Norio Sasaki, even though he resigned from his position after the Nadeshiko suffered a rather precipitous drop in performance and didn’t qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Maybe USSF could even lure retiring Germany head coach Silvia Neid with the promise of sweet sweet American cash (unlikely, but it’s fun to think about). Also in the “fun to think about” category is Tom Sermanni, who by all accounts is quite happy coaching the Orlando Pride and would probably demand some severe groveling if USSF ever thought about even approaching him again.
Time is on USSF’s side
So do you fire Jill Ellis? Perhaps, if she hadn’t won the World Cup, she would be on her way out. But that tournament might have essentially given her one get-out-of-jail-free card. There’s also her work in bringing in Mallory Pugh, with the promise of more to come, which is evident in some of her other young callups.
And since we are in that trough between big tournaments, there’s no sense of urgency now; firing Ellis immediately after the Olympics would just be reactionary. It might be better to wait for the next She Believes tournament, assuming it goes forward as planned in early 2017, and see if the problems from this summer persist against England, France, and Germany. That still leaves plenty of time to consider if Ellis is the right person to carry the program forward, or if someone new is needed to help transition the roster.
That’s not as satisfying as calling for Ellis’ immediate resignation, but with years to go until the next big women’s soccer tournament, we can afford a little wait-and-see.