At the age of 22, after playing my last year of eligibility for the NCAA, I became an assistant coach for the college I played softball at. I learned a lot about how there are different sides of the game, different ways of looking at things—a player’s point of view, a coach’s, an umpire’s, and even a fan’s. Most people think that you can take a player, even the best to ever play and make them into great coaches, but that’s not always the case. Greatness while playing does not automatically equate to greatness in coaching. Coaching is a whole other ballgame.
When you coach, you have a responsibility to the team that you don’t have as a player. As a player, your job is to practice your position, gel within the team, show up on game days and practice days, and give everything you have and leave it on the field. As a coach, your job is never done—there is no off-season because you are constantly recruiting, strategizing; finding ways to make your players better.
I learned this, and it took a while for it to sink in. Coaching is about what is best for the team. ALWAYS. Growing the players, at all levels, to be better people and better players. Teaching them and guiding them to be their best on and off the field; encouraging and preparing them for battle, day in and day out. It is your job as a coach, your duty and responsibility, to be on your game at all times and to make the best decisions for the team as a whole, not just the wins and loss columns, but for the players.
So when I have sat here, since January, and criticized Jill Ellis, I have done so with this mentality; I have done so with the mindset of the coach. I have a different perspective, and I want to show you where I’m coming from. Here are some reasons why I believe we failed in Rio and why I believe that Ellis should lose her job:
For starters, she didn’t win the World Cup with her team or her system. She inherited that team, and they played a system she didn’t have time to change. If Jill had been appointed a few months earlier, we would have seen a younger group for 2015, and more than likely, this wingback system. Make no mistakes about it, this team from Rio, this is what a Jill Ellis team will look like going forward. No true defense, all offense, and a whole lot of prayers from fans.
I have no issue with bringing new blood in and getting the younger youth players experience. It happens and it’s necessary, but there is a way to implement it properly. But Ellis didn’t do it in a way that benefited anyone. Her hand was forced in some areas, with retirements and pregnancies, but those do not excuse her gross lack of player and game management.
With regards to player selection, she has her favorites and she made that blatantly obvious, and that is not how you run a team. I had my favorite players too, but if they were 9 months out from playing in a game, barely just back from a serious injury, and I had a healthy player who was more than capable of doing everything that player can do plus has more experience, I’m taking the other player. If you have a player who is even inexperienced but healthy and capable, you take the healthy player.
She had a defense that was damn near impenetrable, and in less than 13 months, tore it apart for no reason. We proved in the World Cup that defense wins championships—our offense was lacking, and had it not been for a strong back five, we would be waiting for 2019. This change in defense was the starting point of the downfall, and it happened during the Victory Tour.
I was at the Philadelphia game when she played Tobin Heath at right back. I didn’t understand it then; I don’t understand it now, but I never thought in a million years that she would do it in a tournament that mattered. She proved me wrong. This move was yet another red flag in Ellis’s seemingly consistent showing of not knowing or caring where she played players, just as long as the players she wanted were out there, to hell with formation and positions. This is NOT how you manage a team or players.
When you play players out of position, like with Heath, you force the player to go out of their comfort zone and risk them not being able to adjust. Heath is an offensive player, she can cover if a back pushes forward, but she is not a defender—there is a difference. Just because a player is capable of covering and playing up or back periodically during run of play, that does not mean they should be put in that position for the game. I understand if you are switching them permanently, like Dunn from defender to striker, but that’s different and not a game-time decision.
Ellis’s subbing is suspect at best and dismal at worst. Putting Megan Rapinoe in for Kelley O’Hara and moving Tobin Heath to right back was a huge mistake. The whole reason you made O’Hara the starting right back was because she could play both right back and winger, so taking her out and sliding Heath back makes no sense. Rapinoe could only play 30 minutes at most and should have been a straight swap for Heath. Making the move of Heath to right back left us incredibly vulnerable, and had it not been for a horrible offside call, it wouldn’t have gone to penalties. Yes, I know that Carli Lloyd’s recalled goal was also a questionable call, but had her goal counted, that would have made Heath getting burned even worse.
Also, knowing Rapinoe could only play 30 minutes (on top of how rusty she was from not playing for 9 months), using her at the end of the game, that’s a waste of a sub. You could say I’m bitter, but Tony DiCicco agreed, so I’m going with I’m not wrong. You took out the starting right back for no reason to put in a winger that couldn’t play more than 30 minutes, knowing it could go to extra time and she would have to be subbed out. Then you sub her out for another offensive player and don’t move Heath back to the wing. Honestly, as a coach, I’m baffled.
More so, on her subbing, the timing. What is the actual point of putting Christen Press in with less than 2 minutes to go? She is literally one of the best players in the world, and you basically made her less than a footnote. And then you made her go take a penalty kick! What?! You still had Heath in the game, should have had her take it, she has the experience.
Every media outlet, every sports pundit, every fan would have had you believe that the wingback system and our player selection was the new revolution; that this was the team of the future and that Ellis was the greatest coach ever, who tapped some amazing strategy that no team could beat. And all were drastically wrong. I’m not sure why people couldn’t see it, or didn’t want to see it, but whatever Kool-Aid everyone was drinking, please let me know so I can avoid it like the plague. The way Ellis avoided making sound coaching decisions.
Ellis took a team with all the confidence in the world and tore them down to the team we saw in Rio. This team lacked fire and desire and urgency. I’m not sure why or how. I don’t know if they just thought it was in the bag that much or if that was the mindset set by the coaching staff. Yes, the Olympics have almost always been a given for the United States, but that doesn’t mean that you go into it acting like you’ve already won it.
The players have to play, and they’re professionals who take their jobs seriously, but they didn’t play well at all. At some point, the coach has to step in and find that fire for the players—light it and guide them to it. At some point, the coach has to know when to pull players and recognize that the system isn’t working and make the correct, necessary changes.
Ellis didn’t do that.
A coach has a responsibility to the players to do what is best, regardless of the protests from them. They may be professionals, but you are the coach. You are not there to be friends with them. You are not there to cater to their individual needs. You are essentially there to coach the team to victory. You are there to put the right players in the right positions at the right times.
Ellis didn’t do that.
Coaching is bigger than a game plan and a game day. It is knowing your team, the other team, and everything in between. It is knowing how to get the most out of your players and your team as a whole. It is about being able to change your tactics as the game goes on. None of these are Ellis’s strong points.
We didn’t make the medal round for the first time EVER in the Olympics (or any major tournament). This is huge. Tom Sermanni lost his job after coming in 7th at the Algarve Cup (i.e. not a major tournament). This is way worse than that. This is beyond unacceptable, mostly because it was so obviously avoidable if Ellis would have just been a coach and done what was best for the team.
Ultimately, when the plan doesn’t work, it is your job as the coach to fall on the sword. Jill Ellis should lose her job over this. Coaches on all levels have lost their jobs for less, and this is as big a debacle as any. She should have made sure all eyes were on the podium.