Jill Ellis knew last Christmas.
Ellis knew she had done almost everything she had wanted to do as coach of the United States women’s soccer team, knew she had taken its players about as far as she could. She knew what it felt like to lift the World Cup trophy, what it felt like to compete at the Olympics, and she knew it would be wonderful to experience those feelings again.
But she also knew that every coach, and every team — even a great one — eventually runs its course, and she could sense that her time was nearly up. So around Christmas last year, Ellis began to talk to her family about leaving her job as coach of the world’s best national team.
“I would say even when I started this job, I kind of felt that this was not a job that someone sits in for 10 years,” Ellis said. “I think change is good: new perspective, different lens.”
On Tuesday, Ellis made public the decision she had reached privately months ago: She will step down as coach of the United States after it completes a five-game victory tour this fall, and let a new coach lead the team in its quest for a gold medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
Her announcement came less than a month after the Americans won their second straight Women’s World Cup title under Ellis — a raucous, confetti-strewn, Champagne-soaked confirmation that the United States had been restored to its position as the pre-eminent force in women’s soccer. Ellis, 52, said she still would have decided to walk away — “probably” — even if the Americans had not won in France.
She will continue to coach the team through its coming tour, which begins Saturday with an exhibition game against Ireland at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. She will exit the stage with a glittering résumé — 102 victories (and counting) in 127 games, and two World Cup titles — but with no firm plans about what she will do next beyond the ambassador role she has accepted from U.S. Soccer.
“The opportunity to coach this team and work with these amazing women has been the honor of a lifetime,” Ellis said in a statement released by U.S. Soccer on Tuesday.
The daughter of a soccer coach and the sister of another, Ellis, who took up organized soccer only after moving to the United States from England as a teenager, is the only woman to have led teams to consecutive World Cup championships. She directed the Americans to their third world title over all — the team’s first since 1999 — in Canada four years ago, quieting persistent critics of her coaching methods and lineup selections. Her team clinched a second straight trophy in France in early July with a virtuoso performance in which the Americans did not lose a game.
In fact, Ellis’s teams never lost a game at the World Cup: They went 13-0-1 over two tournaments, outscoring opponents by 40-6. Her overall record with the United States — 102 wins, 7 losses and 18 ties — reflects the talent she had to work with but also her ability to harness and focus it.
Ellis’s five-and-a-half-year tenure coincided with a tumultuous time for the women’s program, which fought with FIFA over artificial turf fields before the 2015 World Cup; endured public criticism after national anthem protests by the star forward Megan Rapinoe; engaged in a multiyear battle with U.S. Soccer over pay equity that led more than two dozen players to file a federal gender discrimination lawsuit this year; and, most recently, became embroiled in a war of words on social media featuring Rapinoe and President Trump.
Ellis navigated it all with the same approach that made her an effective coach: She stayed out of the fray, expressing support for her players at all times while avoiding antagonizing her bosses at the federation. In many ways, her tactics in brushing aside distractions mirrored her coaching style: She took criticism of the team’s failings — notably a humiliating quarterfinal exit from the 2016 Olympics — upon herself, and gave her veteran players a wide berth to express their views and their personalities.
The players rewarded her trust, and her loyalty to them, with excellence.
“I’m really fortunate to have an incredibly professional group of women,” Ellis said on the eve of the World Cup when she was asked if the team’s fights with the federation had placed her in an awkward position as a federation employee.
“The players understand that we support them, that we have their backs on and off the field, and we have to be this way. It’s just natural when you come together and go off to try to accomplish something incredibly huge.”
Ellis became the national team coach in 2014, but her association with the program goes back more than a decade. A scout for the U.S. during her days as a college coach at programs including North Carolina State and U.C.L.A., where her teams reached eight consecutive N.C.A.A. final fours, she was an assistant coach when the United States won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Ellis’s current tenure as United States coach is technically her second stint in charge; she served briefly as interim coach after Pia Sundhage stepped down after winning another Olympic title in London in 2012.
Ellis was passed over for the full-time position by U.S. Soccer, however, when the federation chose Tom Sermanni, a Scot, as Sundhage’s permanent replacement. But Ellis did not drift far from the program, and when the players bristled at playing for Sermanni, leading to his firing, Ellis was given the top job in May 2014.
It is unclear who will replace Ellis. Her top assistant, Tony Gustavsson, recently left the program, and U.S. Soccer said it first would fill the vacant women’s national team general manager role, and then let the new G.M. lead the search for a coach. (Ellis said Tuesday that she hoped her successor might be a woman, but would not campaign for any one person.) The federation’s problem is that time is short: The United States will be the favorite to win gold at the 2020 Olympics next summer, but first it will have to qualify through a tournament that will take place early next year.
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