U.S. SOCCER’S JILLIAN ELLIS TALKS ABOUT WOMEN’S SOCCER DEVELOPMENT IN AMERICA
June 01, 2011
A CALSOUTH.COM EXCLUSIVE: AN INTERVIEW WITH U.S. SOCCER'S JILLIAN ELLIS
Interview conducted by Joe Curley
After 12 years at UCLA, which included eight trips to the College Cup, Jillian Ellis was appointed full-time Development Director for the U.S. Women's National Teams in January. With the start of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in Germany beginning near the end of this month, Ellis was kind enough to speak to Cal South Soccer Magazine regarding the state of the women's game in America and what needs to be done to expand opportunities for developing young players in the future.
Cal South: Can we start with your general assessment of where the women's game is right now in this country?
Jillian Ellis: I think women's soccer has become the world's game for women, much like you see on the men's side. In the majority of countries across the world, I think it's becoming, or probably is, that way for women now. African nations, Asian nations, South American nations… it's spread everywhere. I think people have gotten behind it, fans have gotten behind it, federations have gotten behind it in a lot of the regions of the world where five years ago it wasn't a priority.
It wasn't really on the radar. I think the introduction of youth world championships for the women was a huge step to generate support and interest. I think the youth world championships have allowed some of the countries just starting out in soccer… they've got an opportunity to compete. I'm excited. There's parity. There's no longer gaps. You're seeing different countries emerge at different tournaments. I just think it's really been embraced by everybody and it's wonderful to see.
CS: People obviously know you as the former UCLA coach, but can you give us a greater sense of your background in the game?
JE: I grew up in England. I came to this country when I was just turning 16. My father had worked for the FA in England. I lived in Singapore. He coached the national side there. He worked with the national sides of Trinidad and Tobago. I just had a lot of exposure to soccer, not just growing up in England and being a Manchester United supporter since I was 7. I was always on the field, following my dad around. My only opportunity to really play at that point was with boys on playground or with my brother and his friends in the backyard.
I loved the sport, but I never had an opportunity to play over there because there was nothing organized or structured for girls. It wasn't until I came to the states that I actually had formal exposure to actually being on a team. I loved it. I was a fairly decent field hockey player and I played another sport in England - netball - but soccer was my passion. I got to know some good people, ended up playing with [former national team player] Megan McCarthy in high school. So along the way I was around people who were inspiring to be around. I played on a youth team, Braddock Road, and we won the national championship. This was back in the day. I think we played against Michelle Akers in the final. I just loved it.
I wasn't truly versed in the process of selecting a college. My parents had never been in university. It actually came down to asking Megan, "Well, where are you going to college." I was recruited by a variety of schools, but she said "William and Mary." I said, "Well, OK, that's where I'm going." I know… very naive looking back, but it worked out. I played college ball at William and Mary. Quite honestly, my intention wasn't to get into coaching. I ended up taking a position at N.C. State to get my management degree. I coached there as part of it, that's how I got it paid for. I was in the business world for a couple years and then April (Heinrichs) called me. She was the head coach at Maryland. She had an opening. She offered me the job to be her second assistant and I was ready to make the jump… From there, you can probably just check my path. I just loved the game. I was passionate about it. I just grew up in a soccer culture that I think was hard to get away from.
CS: Now that you're so deeply involved in the women's game, what is it like to look back and remember the lack of opportunity for girls to play back home in England?
JE: It was frustrating. Back in that day, they weren't even keen to let any females participate with the boys. It wasn't even like you could join at a younger level. It was just unheard of. Even to the point where, when I got to this country, I told my mum I was going to go out for the soccer team and she was a little bit horrified. It was "a man's game." That's the culture that I had grown up in. So for me, I loved it and I would play a lot, but the only opportunities were literally in the schoolyard and the backyard. To see now where it's come, it's wonderful. Players over there are able to get their get an education paid for, if they're talented enough. As far as catching up now, England, when they started to come on the scene, they didn't have the athlete pool that they now have. It's the most popular sport in England and the better athletes are now involved in it. It shows in the results that they're getting.
CS: Although, in the "Home of Football," you would have thought the women's game would have developed at a quicker pace than what we've seen from England.
JE: There's definitely more people that appreciate women's soccer. England hosted the European championships and they had big crowds for the first game. People were curious to see what women's football looks like. Although there are definitely strides to be made, where it comes to it being more commonplace to have big games and big crowds. I think in Germany, they're there. There's a genuine appreciation for women's football. Even being over there with the Under-20 team, there were big crowds at a U-20 world championship. I really think they appreciate what the women can do and they're culturally educated in soccer. So, regardless of how fast the game is or how physical the game is, I think they can appreciate a good touch or a good build-up. Things like that.
I certainly think, in this country, it would be foolish to say you think you've arrived. I think we still want to further our sport. We're certainly advancing. I've just been working with the U-17s. The level is advancing and the opportunities are continuing to grow.
Obviously, with the MLS, our men's league is surviving and thriving now and I'd love to see that happen on the women's side. But where do we fall behind? Other than the WNBA, which I think is subsidized, there's no [women's] professional team sport that's thriving in this country. I'd love to see that happen. I don't think it's specific to soccer. I think part of it is just where we're at for watching professional sports for women.
CS: What can you tell me about the early stages of this new developmental structure that's been put together?
JE: April (Heinrichs) and I thought that, before we jumped into our jobs, it was important to take stock of where we are and, potentially, where we want to be. So we thought it was important to just get a variety of parties to a table to have a discussion. What is working? What needs improving? What ideas are out there from some of our more astute people, out there in the game? We were thoughtful about who we thought should be involved in this. We've got college coaches. We've got club directors. We've got club coaches. We've got the [recreational] groups. Initially, it was important to get all the parties to the table and take stock of where we are.
Our first meeting was very productive. There were some good discussions and, obviously, it starts there. It's important to know how we want to improve, but it's also important to know what's working. For our next meeting, we're actually forming subcommittees within the task force to know how to look at the various zones. We had Kevin Payne in there, who'd been instrumental in the men's task force. It was great to have him in there to just discuss some of the processes that they went through. So now we've organized it, identified the three zones and divided the members into, not just by a matter of expertise, but where can these people be most influential?
In the big picture, I'm still in the exploratory phase of this job. Part of my charge is to really go out and connect with the clubs. One of the things that I addressed in the interview process was our club coaches have the most impact with our youth players because they have the most contact with them. If we can reach out to them, find out what they're doing, find out how we can help them, not just share our thoughts but also share of the issues that they're dealing with, then that's a really good place where we can have the most impact.
That's kind of where I'm at. I'm putting together this scouting network. It's been going on the boys' side, and they've started it on the girls' side, but I'm going to take that over. That's mainly identification at this point, but certainly, I think we can also work on it as part of our development piece to bring the top players into these training centers.
CS: U.S. Soccer is dividing its development into three zones, tailoring its approaches to children, teenagers and young professionals. The initial meetings were held in Washington D.C. this past February. The next meetings will be held in June. Coach Ellis was asked where she thought the process was taking the women's game.
JE: I don't think anyone will put a timeline on it. Kevin Payne was great. He basically said to us, "You can't be in a rush." This is going to be a multi-pronged approach. Eventually, it will start to reveal itself. I've been asked a lot. "Are we having an academy?" "Are we having a residency?" Are we having all these things? We're not there yet. We're just in the early stages of looking at how we can best help our game and help it develop.
CS: What makes the developmental aspect of the women's game in the U.S. unique?
JE: For us, on the girls' side… our elite youth player is in the middle and a lot of teams are demanding a lot of time. Having conversations with the youth players, you see that they're in the middle. April and I have done a little research on the demands on the elite player, and volume is a huge part of it. They are playing upwards of 100 games a year, some of these players. It's astronomical. Some of the issues we have are definitely the number of games these kids are playing. Does it have a bearing on injuries? Yeah, I'll be quite frank. I'm no doctor, but I have seen, as a coach, a lot of injuries in younger players. The elite player is serving a lot of different constituents and I think, at times, they are stretched very thin. The training ratio right now, I think, with the number of games that they're playing, they're probably training twice for every match. We need to get that adjusted to a more reasonable level. If you're a car, you can't run in fifth gear forever and that's what's happening with some of these players. They're playing five games in a weekend.
They're playing six, seven games in a week. In other parts of the country, some players are playing high school and club. It's six games in a week. That's not helping us and I know that when we put the task force together, it's an area that we're going to try to evaluate.
CS: You've been attending some youth national team camps. What have you seen?
JE: My take on it, if you had asked me three months ago, I might have had a different answer. But having just spent some time with our U-15s and our U-17s, there are some very good players. I definitely think that, in the big picture, we're further along than we were five years ago. There's a lot of very talented players doing some very sophisticated things. I feel actually quite good about some of the things that are happening, but we also need to make sure that we evaluate our development from a 16-year-old to a 20-year-old. The volume kids are playing, the training ratios, the fact that, if you're 16 you're playing with 16-year-olds, are issues. You go across to Europe and you see 16- and 17-year-olds playing with 25- and 26-year-olds. That's where we lose a little ground in our development. I've seen it.
The 17s just recently played Germany. I thought we played well, physically competed and were definitely the more dominant team in those games. And now I've been with our U-20s playing Germany and we, at times, look young, less sophisticated, less experienced. That's because, in that time period, our 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds are now playing against the same age and, in Europe, they're playing against women. And they're playing against high-level competition like the European championships every year. They're playing international matches a lot easier than we are. So those are some of the challenges. That's why we're looking at these different areas.
CS: Does the college game have a role in this?
JE: I agree, the positive about the college environment is that you have an 18-year-old playing against a 21-year-old. What I found over the years was that, more and more, it became harder for freshmen. It used to be, 12 years ago, incoming freshman could automatically step in and compete. Now it's your very, very special freshmen that can do that.
Why? A lot of times, physically, the players have matured more. That part of college is important in our development. Certainly, the number of games, we bang them all into this three-month period. I struggle with that a little bit, because ultimately the priority there is their education. As a coach of a college team, you can't lose sight that the ultimate goal for these kids is to get an education. But, certainly, there are a lot of limitations on these players. This is where most of these players need to go out and get more matches and training during their summer months. The W-League and other leagues are out there.
When a college player asks me what they should do during the summer? Play. You need to get on a team and play, because the number of games is just not enough. Unless a kid is on a national team, they're not getting that volume… The summer leagues have real merit… It's so important that these kids have year-round match play.
CS: How have systems and styles evolved in the women's game over the past 10 years?
JE: You're always going to have a variety of different alignments out there. I think, right now, I'd say the four-back is the most common alignment defensively. But, just in general play, I think women's teams have become, defensively, a lot more organized. If you look historically at the men's game, the team that has the most possession is typically the team that wins. Obviously not all the time, but if a team has a majority of the ball, they tend to win the game. In the past, on the women's side, that's not always the case. Sometimes just the bigger, stronger, faster teams have been able to pull it off. Now that everyone has become a lot more athletic across the board, teams are focused on organization defensively. Teams have become just a lot more committed to defending. The game becomes more challenging, to break down teams. So, now, much like on the men's side, I think the team that has the ball is most likely be the team that wins the day.
Finding ways to win is great, but now we need to be better at keeping the ball. I think you're starting to see that in the women's game.
Teams are doing a lot better job of keeping possession, stringing passes together and being more thoughtful in the way they build. I think a big part of that has been the evolution out there in Asia. Those teams, their build-up, they string 10-12 passes as they move and build forward. I think we're starting to see a greater emphasis on possession in the women's game. I think women, internationally, are better at dealing with pressure, better in tighter spaces. You have to defend in numbers now, because there are players that are able to solve pressure. Set pieces are another aspect. Maybe 12 years ago, it was rare to see set piece specialists and now you see them on the women's side. It means women are starting to spend more time with the ball and that's fantastic.
CS: Which will only improve the spectacle we'll see this summer…
JE: Brazil will probably play again in a three-back, they just move the ball so well. I've been very impressed with some of the Asian teams. Germany is so organized, so disciplined. I think one of the things that we don't do in this country, we don't develop specialists.
In Germany, a kid is identified as a flank player early and they master the role of a flank player. Here, we put our players in a lot of different positions. In high school, they're playing centrally. In club, they're playing up front. In national team, they're playing at the back. I think the rest of the world does a better job of identifying a player's attributes and really maximizing them. For us, it's maybe not what's best for the player, it's maybe what that team needs at that particular moment. Maybe it's because these other countries don't have such the volume of players to pick from. They hone in and specialize. I used to think you have to be versatile, but now I'm more convinced that you should master your position and become the best right back in the country, you know?
CS: Just how important is the future of the WPS to the growth of the game in this country?
JE: As someone who is now entrenched in development, to have that top layer, that professional league. Look at it on the men's side, having that league has definitely helped the development of the players. Not only is there's something to strive for, there's recognition; there's validation for the importance of the sport. For me, taking all the other issues, financial and everything off the table, having an upper echelon is important. Is it so the 9-year-old can go to the game and watch her heroes? Yes. I think that piece is important. But, more so, it's important for our elite players.
Realistically, a female soccer player is not reaching her peak until 25-26. The kids get out (of college) at 21 and that's it for a lot of them. Our U-23 team has bridged the gap a little bit, but there's nothing about a professional environment. Part of it is learning to be a professional. That's a big part of it.
For the elite players, for those players that really want to elevate and be a part of our senior team, this environment is fantastic. Much like our internationals are learning things from our American system, our professional players are taking things away from training with a Japanese [player], or from watching a Swedish player. I just think it's a great environment. I would be very saddened to not see our league survive.
Having said that, everybody has to be dedicated to the preservation of this league. If it means people making certain sacrifices, then what's the alternative? Nowhere to play. And then we're just going to have 25 kids playing overseas and I don't think it helps the developing players. Abby Wambach was a good college player, but she truly emerged in the Women's United Soccer Association. Shannon Boxx, a very good college player on the fringe of the national team, emerged in the WUSA. Those are now stalwarts of our Women's National Team. Would we have seen them [without the WUSA]? Probably not.
CS: We're coming up on 12 years since the golden summer of 1999. What type of affect did that team have on the game?
JE: I just remember watching the World Cup and I was just blown away by the whole carnival atmosphere and energy that you could just seen. I was just floored. I know the players didn't expect it, but as a fan and as a coach, I didn't expect the whole country to get behind it like that. It definitely gave women's soccer the notoriety and the visibility that probably made a lot of young girls put on soccer cleats. For a lot of our coaches, I know it was great to put our sport on the forefront. It was just an amazing time, an amazing accomplishment. Honestly, the thing I remember most about it is [Kristine] Lilly clearing the ball off the line. I saw her a couple weeks ago and that's the most vivid memory I have. For a coach, that's the game. It's just inches. It's details. It's just these tiny little pieces and just look at the tidal wave that came behind that simple thing of saving the ball off the line… It was awesome.
CS: Do you think, more than a decade later, that that team still affects the public's expectations of the U.S. WNT?
JE: I've been out in the international community in the past two or three years. It's so interesting to hear how other people perceive you. I certainly think it was a momentous occasion, but even prior to that, people view us as ultra-competitive, athletic, hard, never give up. These are things that would have characterized us even before that game. I don't think that that suddenly changed how we were perceived. Probably the rest of the community is looking at it, "They won on penalty kicks, it was that close."
I think the rest of the world has always seen us as, with April and Akers and Carin Jennings-Gabarra, as this competitive, fiery force. So I don't think that changed the perception. It probably galvanized it. As raising a level of expectation… you win the first one, that's the expectation. I don't think it's an unfair expectation to live up to, I just think it's what you deal with when you wear the U.S. badge. But other countries have invested in the game and now they're seeing benefits.
Cal South Soccer Magazine correspondent Joe Curley also covers soccer for the Ventura County Star and the Scripps Howard News Service. Joe lives in Camarillo with his wife, Rian, and daughter, Vivienne.