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Why it’s not so easy to fire Jill Ellis

It may be time to make a change, but Ellis a better coach than many of her critics think

Soccer: Tournament of Nations Women's Soccer-Australia at USA Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a tough year for the US Women’s National Team. After going over a decade without losing at home, they’ve dropped three games so far in 2017. The reigning World Cup champions have also failed to win either of the tournaments they set up this year. And even where they've found some good results, the play has often been poor. For a team stocked with some of the best attacking talent in the world, the US has often looked hesitant, choppy, and disconnected. And, perhaps most worrying, there doesn't really seem to be much clarity on how or when things are going to improve.

According to head coach Jill Ellis, the last 12 months were primarily a period of experimentation. With no major tournaments on the horizon, this is absolutely the time to test out theories and focus on the long term. But experimentation is only valuable if it produces new insights. And it’s hard to see what lessons have been learned from those experiments, or how this will translate into better performances going forward.

This has led to some serious rumblings about whether it's time for a change. There's no doubt that Ellis has major weaknesses as a coach. But it's worth taking some time to think about the full package of strengths and weaknesses that she brings to the table, and to consider whether some of the more subtle parts of the job are enough to outweigh her superficial limits.

This is not meant to be a case against her dismissal. It's simply an attempt to make a full accounting. If it is in fact time for US Soccer to move on from Ellis, they should do so with a full awareness of what might be lost in the transition, as well as what could be gained.

The long-awaited stylistic revolution

The case against Ellis is relatively straightforward, and rests primarily on the standards that she herself has set. Ever since her arrival, we have been told about the only stylistic overhaul. Even today, the promises continue to fly fast—the US is going to become more technical, quick in possession, with lots of intricate triangles—but we've seen no evidence on the pitch.

There was some initial progress with the phaseout of Abby Wambach. But ‘stop just lumping the ball into the box’ is hardly the stuff of Gusztáv Sebes. And apart from this change, it’s hard to see much other evidence of progress. The big innovation of 2016 was the double-pivot, ostensibly designed to support this new attacking style. But in practice it simply created a huge gap in the center of the pitch. The team could attack well down the wings, but the midfield hardly turned into a beautiful geometry of tight triangles. 2017’s experiment with a back three, meanwhile, indicated a radically different perspective on the value of high pressing, but generated no discernible shift in the style of play through the middle. The extra body in the midfield allowed Ellis to play another attacker, but didn’t change the overall approach in any meaningful way. Attacks started higher, but the disconnect in the midfield remained.

Now, it’s possible that Ellis truly does have a secret plan to fight inflation, and that a technical, possession-oriented team will emerge in 2019 like a butterfly from a cocoon. But at a certain point, you have to default to the simple answer: that Ellis simply isn't willing or able to make the change.

Ellis is better at improvising than making structured changes

For some, the failed experiments of the past year are the beginning and the end of the story. But it's worth stopping for a moment to think about how Ellis has approached this process, why it hasn't worked, and what that can tell us about her overall qualities as a coach.

When we think about experimentation, we generally expect some coherent structure. Good experiments start with a hypothesis, a plan for how to test that hypothesis, and a sense of what can be learned from success or failure. That’s not what we’ve seen from Ellis. She is more of an abstract thinker, a tinkerer: someone who hatches an idea and simply throws a few things together to see what happens.

As a tinkerer, Ellis doesn’t really have grand theories about the nature of soccer, or any clear sense of how to get from point A to point Z. Her move to a back three was clearly a response to a problem (the Olympics), and she clearly had an idea about what it could accomplish. But in execution, it became quickly obvious that she hadn’t really considered the potential drawbacks, and therefore didn’t have a clear sense of how to address those problems once they manifested. She tried something, it failed, and she did what any tinkerer will do when their experiment blows up: abandon it and do something else.

The idea of a three back wasn't terrible, and Ellis deserves credit for trying. But she simply wasn't well-suited to making it happen, so an interesting idea ended up being a bust, where someone with a more rigorous approach might have found a way to make it work.

However, while the lack of clearly-defined objectives and long-term plans can be maddening, the closer we get to the big tournaments of 2019 and 2020 the less that this sort of thing will matter. Coaches with long-term vision and consistent plans are nice, but they do have the tendency to get stuck in a rut. Tinkerers are less likely to suffer that particular problem.

Remember the big move of the 2015 World Cup? Ellis was forced into a change due to circumstance, and stumbled into the ideal formation. To some, that’s evidence of her cluelessness—why didn’t she bring in Brian as a holding mid to start with?—but to others that’s just how tinkerers work. They adapt to circumstances. Ellis couldn't see the glaring problem with her midfield...right up until she did.

Obviously, you'd prefer a coach who makes changes before the crisis emerges, but adaptability is a real skill, too. Tinkerers sometimes have the ability to think their way around problems, since their very lack of clarity allows them to discover solutions that more rigorous scientists might never find. Maybe none of her wild efforts will bear fruit, but it only takes one or two hits to redeem the process.

Ellis doesn’t need to be a tactical genius

Closely related to Ellis's experimental difficulties is her general lack of tactical acumen—particularly when it comes to the central midfield. Whether for lack of interest or lack of ability, Ellis simply doesn't seem to be able to build a coherent possession-based midfield.

But tactics aren't everything, and soccer is not quite as complicated as it can be made to sound. Simply sending out a coherent lineup will often get you 90% of the way to a goal. And so while Ellis is no tactical genius, she doesn't have to be. Even modest shifts can produce relatively big effects.

We saw an example of this in the recent victory over Japan. Broadly speaking, they still played like a typical Ellis team: attack down the wings, struggle to hold the ball in the middle. But their possession-game was stronger than usual, and some of the ball movement was tighter and more intricate. There were several factors at work here, including the relatively weak nature of this Japan squad. But at least part of the equation was the team selection, most notably the choice to deploy Christen Press at center forward and Julie Ertz at holding midfield.

The point here is not to re-litigate the endless Press v. Morgan debates, but simply to note that if Ellis wants a more technical style, using Press centrally would certainly push things in that direction. Similarly, using Ertz as a holding midfielder provided balance and precision, allowing the team to win and maintain possession in the center of the pitch. Ertz didn’t play in a strict holding role, but she was far closer than we’ve seen from players like Long or Mewis. It still wasn’t a team built around controlling the central midfield, but they at least used the center of the field to supplement and facilitate attacks down the wings.

Even the bizarre decision to deploy Sauerbrunn in the midfield offers a glimmer of hope, insofar as it suggests that Ellis may finally be coming around to the idea that a true holding midfielder can be a valuable piece of the puzzle.

So there is a clear template here. The US has the personnel to play a more technical style. Players like Press, Ertz, Sullivan, Brian, Lavelle, Heath, and Dunn have the sort of skill and vision that's needed to play this sort of game, and they’re all already part of the normal rotation. It wouldn't require any major tactical shifts, or a change in coaches, just a few modest shifts in attitude toward selection and team construction.

Whether this is, in fact, what Ellis wants is still unknown. And reading the tea leaves is always a bit of a fool’s game. But one possible take on the Tournament of Nations is that Ellis has recognized the limits of her preferred style, and is beginning to make some of the tweaks that might help moderate the effect. Time will tell, but there is some evidence of progress here. And given the typology I set out above—tinkering vs. experimenting—it’s actually quite plausible that Ellis might perform better now that she has freed herself from the perceived obligation to ‘experiment’ with the sort of large-scale tactical changes that fall so far outside her wheelhouse.

We pay too much attention to marginal decisions

Poor communication generates a mismatch between ability and public perception, which is then compounded by her tinkering habits. Ellis often lacks a coherent worldview to explain her choices, and then is unable to offer a satisfactory explanation. This can contribute to a sense of a rudderless ship, and escalating cycles of frustration on the part of the fans.

But it's important to remember that there is often an inverse relationship between the level of scrutiny applied to a decision and its importance. Marginal team selections, for example, are a huge target of criticism. "Why can't [insert good NWSL player] get a look?" is a cottage industry at this point. Others have focused on her marginalization of Ali Krieger. Or her unwillingness to give backup keepers time. Pick your poison and Ellis has probably made some decision that infuriates you.

These issues drive endless churn in social media, but the reality is that most of them just aren't actually that important. Would I appreciate a chance to see Dani Colaprico patrolling the central midfield in a USWNT kit? I absolutely would. Is the team seriously harmed by not giving her that chance? Probably not. The identity of the 23rd player on the plane very rarely makes a big difference.

The marginal decisions are the places most likely to draw conversation—precisely because they occur in a space where there’s room for plenty of arguments. And they do tell us important things about the coach's priorities. But these are mostly, by definition, marginal decisions. They do matter, but probably a lot less than Twitter echo chambers might lead us to believe. Once again, the fact that a decision is public doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important.

What happens behind the scenes matters, too

All of which brings us to the largest point in Ellis’s favor: her ability to manage the locker room, motivate her players, and keep everyone moving in the same direction. These skills are less exciting than the stuff that happens in front of the cameras, but that doesn’t necessarily make them less important.

Soccer teams are complex systems, and a multiplicity of factors contribute to any given result. That means that we will always have a tough time quantifying causes and effects. But that's precisely why the behind-the-scenes part of the job matters so much. A big part of a coach's job is to keep this complex system in some kind of balance.

And by all accounts, Ellis seems to be good at this. She's been on the job for almost a full cycle (hired in May 2014) and during that time there have been few problems with the locker room that we know of. Even when issues have flared up, they have usually been managed quickly and relatively easily.

That's not nothing. Take a squad of strong personalities and add some significant player turnover. Set them up against an increasingly competitive set of global competitors in a series of tough tournaments. And do it all in the midst of a bitter contract dispute. That's a recipe for potential disaster.

The US can’t get by on sheer force of will or physical ability. But those things do matter, and they should be taken for granted. In many ways, the biggest story of the Ellis reign is the crises that never struck. You could easily imagine an alternative version of events with extreme locker room conflicts that spilled out onto the pitch and turned the team into a circular firing squad. But that's not what we've seen. Instead, Ellis has presided over a team that has fought hard, and earned a run of impressive results.

She deserves credit for that stability, even if we can't tell precisely how to apportion responsibility.

Firing Ellis isn’t a no-brainer

Which brings us to the tipping point: is it time for Ellis to go?

The case for dismissal is hard to resist. By her own standards, the team is not succeeding, and it’s not obvious when or how improvements will kick in. And while the team ethos has held firm, is that enough to outweigh her deficiencies? And will it continue to weather further storms? That's a tough bet to make.

Ultimately, the answer depends on what you consider to be most important. If the priority is long-term progress along the lines that Ellis has promised, she probably can't deliver. They might be able to kludge her way toward a more technically-oriented style, but the full scale revolution is not happening under Ellis.

However, if the priority is risk-avoidance, there is a plausible case for the status quo. After all, there are risks from a coaching change. Two years is a long time, but can a full-scale reorganization be completed in time for France 2019? Maybe. But maybe not. And if a new coach improves the style of play but disrupts the team dynamic, is that a worthwhile change? Add in the fact that firing Ellis leaves the US on the hook for her contract as well as her replacement, and you can see why there might be some real hesitation.

Are those good enough reasons for staying the course? At the end of the day, they probably aren't. The US simply has too many good players to keep trudging along this way. Ellis may be a safe call, but the US should be striving for more than just safety. But it's important to be clear about the stakes. There are plenty of good reasons for letting Ellis go, and ultimately those probably weigh heavily enough to justify the move. But it's not the easy call that it's often made out to be.