Jill Ellis and the Great Coaching Debacle of 2016

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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.

17 thoughts on “Jill Ellis and the Great Coaching Debacle of 2016

  1. Ellis needs to go, the Rapinoe sub was a disaster but not the only one, Rapinoe should have been the alternate and replaced with HAO. If you look at the games leading up to the final shame, the USA barely squeaked by any team. Ellis consistently plays players out of position, Krieger should have been in there with Kelley, not in place of. She needs to tell Julie she is a defender not a striker, and Alex should be front and center not Carli. She has screwed the backline, she has allowed the midfield to wilt and she messes the forwards. What exactly has she done right.

  2. WWC15 team, program, athletes, system, whatever you want to call it was successful. No doubts or arguments there. But it wasn’t without its own fair share of adversity during WWC15. The players found their way around it all. And our opponents – as would ANY intelligent adversary – figured out how to crack our system of play.

    The WWC15 team Ellis “inherited” [sic] was unsustainable. Many international teams are catching up and/or are at the level of USWNT. The same winning tactics which have won in the past are not necessarily the same tactics which will win in the future. This is a fundamental tenet of battle (i.e. sports, war, etc, etc). The adversity faced in Rio 2016 has empowered USWNT to make needed adjustments to keep pace with evolving soccer changes.

    WNY Flash reference: coaches coach (God forbid, micromanage) until the game starts. Once the whistle blows, coach’s influence is minimal. No time outs. Very few huddles. Therefore, players are responsible for connecting, adapting and evolving on the fly individually and collectively…WNY Flash did precisely the aforementioned.

    I think we’ve achieved common ground on competition, winning and being the best. Definitely not something to apologize for and this mentality is universal – not merely inherent to America. We don’t seem to agree on coaching, leadership and the art of “war”.

  3. Portland vs WNY Flash, 2016

    Paul Riley got ejected from the game.

    WNY Flash won.

    The coach set them up and prepared them to be successful WITHOUT him.

    A coaching lesson you haven’t learned yet nor have been exposed to, have you now? It comes with failure but it’s a hard thing for the American “must win all the time” mentality. There are a while lot more factors involved with winning. Losing is one of them.

    1. I have learned over and over again in my life about losing, on and off the field. As a coach, when you lose something that is considered an automatic, especially in such a fantastic manner, it generally costs you your job.
      I’m not understanding your WNY reference, Jill hasn’t even prepared them to play well WITH her on the sideline, let alone with her in the stands.
      At the end of the day, the team as whole, played badly, was unprepared and didn’t even medal. The team that won the World Cup, was not Jill’s team, she inherited that one, it was also not her system. Whatever it was, that happened at the Olympics, any other coach, any other team, she’s gone. Because you are right, in American sports, it’s win or get out. We expect trophies, anything else is failure and we will never apologize for that.

  4. Portland vs WNY Flash, 2016

    Paul Riley got ejected from the game.

    WNY Flash won.

    The coach set them up and preoared them to be successful WITHOUT him.

    A coaching lesson you haven’t learned yet nor have been exposed to, have you now? It comes with failure but it’s a hard thing for the American “must win all the time” mentality. There are a while lot more factors involved with winning. Losing is one of them.

  5. Monica, I agree with every single thing you have said in this article. Finally I found someone who is saying out loud what I have been saying for a long time. And I am not a coach, or a professional player, just a huge football (let’s call the sport with its real name) fan that have followed the sport since the day I was born. And even I can see what Jill is doing to this team. Jill has destroyed the best team in the world. She turned the unbreakable team into a vulnerable one. It is painful to see how she’s destroying them game after game. This is the best team, talent wise, and she’s just wasting their talent . With those players US should win any competition they compete. You have said everything, there is nothing else to say. I think Pia was the best coach they could have. With Pia they played the most beautiful football I have ever seen. To sub a sub for a coach is admitting a failure, unless the sub gets injured, which was not the case of Rapinoe (which I think is a great player, but not after months of not having played). And last thing about Press, how blind you must be not to see what a wonderful player she is?!
    Thank you for this article, and let’s hope that someone, who can do something about this situation, finally realizes what we, fans, have realized for a long time already

  6. The scary part is as time goes by she gets more and more power. The team at the Olympics was still half the team she inherited they were just playing the way she wanted them to.

    Now with three years for her to turn the team into what she wants it to be, more players will retire or get kicked off the team. She decides who gets called up. She decides where they play and how they are implemented to the team. She decides what it takes for a player to prove she should be on the team and what constitutes that a player no longer has the ability to be part of the team and HER future plans.

    I feel like the federation just does not care anymore. They feel like they were betrayed by the players with the lawsuit and don’t want to listen to their demands/opinions or they don’t want to have to look for a new coach for the third time in five years.

  7. Anyone who has watched this team, especially since the World Cup last year, could see this coming. Yes Jill’s hands were forced on making changes because of some things beyond her control. However, she tinkered with the defense when she did not have to, in order to help a floundering offense. If she would have concentrated where she needed to – get the offense to be able to finish and make the mid-field functional with so many changes, there may have been a very different outcome in the Olympics.

    I get that she wants to impart her philosophy on this team and that is understandable. But with just one year between the World Cup and Olympic Games, her timing could not have been worse. Now is the time for change and maybe even getting more playing time for back up players — like the goalkeepers. In that way, she can truly evaluate her talent. At this point, I’m not so sure either she or her assistant coaches really gave their best in the Olympic Games. And I wonder if they can do a better job in the future.

  8. I think my biggest problem with JE about the Sweden game was the fact that she stated publicly what Pia was going to do, and then did not change her game plan or her personnel.

    These two worked together for a while before parting ways, so it stands to reason that they have a good idea what the other is going to do during a game. Yet still I was surprised that JE stated “They will park the bus. They will sit as low as they possibly can and then look to transition [on counterattacks].”
    Our coach basically just told the whole world what she expected. I was actually surprised that Pia stayed with her game plan even though she knew we were expecting it. That leads me to believe that Pia knew Ellis enough to expect the USA wouldn’t adapt to different tactics. The Sweden game should have been a chess match like the final. In the final Pia new she had to change her tactics because the Germans knew how to adapt to beat them.

    Like it was stated in the article she seems to solely concentrate on offense. It looks like a field setup of 2-7-1. Or just 2-7 with the forward left isolated from the rest of the team and of no use. If you look at any stills from games during Rio you can see the huge areas of space that are available when 8 of our players are around the opponents 18. So not only is there a lot of space for an opponent to play the ball into on a counter, there is a ton of congestion in the midfield. It still amazes me that 7 players within the same third of the field can’t sting together more than 3 passes without loosing the ball. The midfield was a leaky sieve and there were 2 more midfielders (supposed OBs) in the same space condensing it even more. Even then with all those players they did not seem creative or know how to connect with the forward. On top of it all there was the fact that time and again the OBs were so far forward they could never recover in time for counterattacks. This left the two CBs as the only defense along with the keeper. I know we had a great defense, but I’m fairly sure that a 4 person back line is far superior to a 2 person back line as the sheer area of the field can be covered easier.

    I have also seen the graphic of the shots USA took during that game. A lot of them were off target, maybe half were even on frame. The directionality of the shots also interests me. I thought the whole purpose of bombing the OBs so far forward was so they could get endline and make crosses across the face of goal. But looking at where the shots came from its mostly the middle of the field and fairly head on. The distribution was fairly split between outside the 18 and within it. But there was nothing from more lateral positions or from within the 6 yrd box, which one would think is where a goal would come from off of a cross by an OB. The empty/filled circles shown denote which shots were on target, we had 5 total. So that leads me back to Ellis’s all offense mentality. What ever tactics she wanted did not appear in this game, so the players resorted to ripping it towards goal as much as they could with no thought of tactics or flow. I mean if you take enough something has to go in right?

    In comparison the Swedish goal was from towards the outside edge of the 6 and crossed the face of goal (to avoid the keeper). This all was made possible by the fact that the ball was played between the CBs who were covering the whole back line may have been two far apart to quickly respond. Either way that is to much area for 2 CBs to cover as the OBs (who are we kidding extra midfielders) were up at the Swedish 18 yrd box. And again Ellis knew this was Pia’s game plan and didn’t think that maybe the USA should have a bit more defense on the field?
    To top it all off there was her crappy pre-planned subs and the obvious playing of players out of position. Because seriously, Heath as RB?!? She is the most creative offensive player on the field and she was put in a position that did absolutely nothing to help win the game. It’s like JE wanted more offense and literally didn’t know where to put her. Because remember the OBs are basically midfielders. So at minimum we need a DM, because the midfield is a mess. JJ played DM in college, so how about we try her there and have Broon/Kriegs as CBs. That way you will have a DM who actually is defensively minded and knows the job in front of 2 players with very high football IQ as defense.

  9. I agree 100% with everything you said here.
    She had THE best defense group in the women’s soccer world and she TORE IT DOWN.
    I’ve been watching USA games for a very long time and its visible that she wanted to be more progressive and make the team forward oriented, but to do that your defense needs to be pretty damn solid.
    Becky is the only one still hanging, JJ gets scared without protection and Kling hasn’t been the same solid player for a while. To me, this defense came tumbling down after she took Krieger out. Ali brings security, maturity and the tranquility I dont feel with KO. Krieger is solid at defense.
    Jill has so many options, so many good players that I think she sometimes loses herself.
    Let’s hope she can learn from her mistakes, only time will tell.

  10. Rapinoe was just baffling to me. No matter what the sport. You don’t bring any player back into one of the two biggest tournament ever. Surgery and 8 months off she was not and could not be game ready. No matter how much she or Ellis wanted her to be.

    taking game time off was proven a bad idea by abby(who I love btw) and she was healthy. She was not the Abby we were used to in the WC.

    Unless HAO has some soundness or attitude (highly doubt) issue we don’t know about, an alternate? Seriously? No secret I love HAO so I am biased bit You have a player that has made last minute, must finish plays in WCs and Olympics and you make them an ALTERNATE? Has Ellis read HAO’s wiki?

    I don’t know if Ellis deserves to be fired for this but if things continue like this….it might need to happen.

  11. Diane,

    It’s not just one game, yes the examples were from the last game, but it’s the magnitude of the loss and what it means in terms of the whole of the USWNT. Her tactics must be looked at and taken into account, if she can produce going forward. It’s not just about one game, the team was in shambles for the last 6 months, the play was sloppy and not connected. The chemistry is massively suspect and the play has been disjointed. If we had played any of these teams, fully healthy, during the last 6 months, we would have lost, a lot. And yes, it is the coaches fault if things don’t work, it’s part of the job description, she and every coach on earth know this when they accept the job. That’s part of coaching, accepting fault when the team fails and praising the players when they win. That’s coaching.

    1. Hi Monica: Found your article provoking and enlightening so I shared it on FB in the NWSL Supporter’s Group ….. it certainly has caused comments to be made …… Seriously, excellent article. Cheers Michael

    2. Obviously, I don’t agree with your total assessment. You fail to recognize, or maybe just to say, that for large portions of the last year the team has played some pretty fluid and attractive attacking soccer. Ellis is changing the way USA plays football and that comes with growing pains. This is not to say that some of her Olympic decisions don’t warrant close inspection, but to say the team was only a shambles and disjointed for 6 months leading up to the Olympics denies some of the best soccer USA has played. Certainly losing like they did in the Olympics puts a fine point on any perceived flaws, but if we’re honest it wasn’t just the coaching that might have led to the loss. As a whole the players didn’t execute as well as they could have on the day. The team had 16 shots inside the 18 and only managed to get 3 on frame. The coach can’t do that for them. The strategy created chances, but the players couldn’t put them away. Ultimately, I don’t think crashing out in the Olympics the way they did is a death knell for the coach or the program or even any individual players. I’ve learned as a coach, and I’m sure you have too, that there is much more that goes on than shows up on the field. In this instance I don’t think the program in general would really benefit from a coaching change now. I think the biggest thing that will allow any coach to really put their brand on this team is a change to the CBA. Until then any coach will be limited.

      1. I’ll agree to disagree on believing that Ellis isn’t the right coach for this team. I agree that the players didn’t preform and this tournament needs to be looked at as a whole. But if you really think that the US has played some of it’s best and most attractive football in the last year or so, I will respectfully disagree and let it go. The CBA is a whole other story, I’m not going to get into here and for multiple reasons. There is much more that goes on than just what’s on the field, but whatever it is, it isn’t working their either. This team is not a team. They play as a group of individuals and that, that is something the coach needs to fix. If she can’t, they need to find a bunch of new players, or a coach who can get them to play for each other. You don’t have to like each other off the field, but you have to be willing to die for each other on it and part of that, that desire, the coach has to set that precedent. Ellis has her favorites, she’s not shy about admitting that, that is a HUGE problem! And that, that is not ok, with any coach, at any level, at any time.

  12. If all coaches were judged by your criteria – “Ultimately, when the plan doesn’t work, it is your job as the coach to fall on the sword.” – then every coach that loses a game would be fired. I don’t agree with all of Ellis’s decisions, but I also don’t agree that this loss is grounds to fire her.

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