Jill Ellis, One-on-one: Game-changers, playing style, and what she's learned on the road to the 2019 World Cup
Fans were concerned when the U.S. women's national team failed to win either of the tournaments staged on home soil this year, falling in successive games to France and England in March’s SheBelieves Cup and dropping a decision to Australia in last month's Tournament of Nations.
That's OK. Part of the plan.
With the group of players that have come through ... I think it's going to be a very potent and exciting team.
With the next World Cup still two years away, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis and her staff have a team that's in transition. After months of evaluation, it's now on to determining the hierarchy around the field, the system that best fits the personnel, and the tactics that will enable the U.S. to successfully defend its 2015 World Cup title.
FourFourTwo caught up with Ellis to talk about what she's learned over the last months.
FOURFOURTWO: You spent the last part of last year and first seven months or so this year assessing players, and now the real work toward the 2019 World Cup begins. What were the biggest things you learned?
JILL ELLIS: Going into it, we wanted to deepen our player pool, play the top teams, and then kind of explore our tactical flexibility. Coming out on the backside of the last nine months, I think we pushed ourselves, and I think we've added some exciting players who can contribute on our march toward 2019. For sure, we've adjusted, assessed personnel and lineups to really examine where our players will maximize their individual abilities to make us powerful collectively.
I would say I've checked those boxes, in terms of we've played hard teams. I said this before: We could have played teams that weren't going to stretch us as much in this period, but to really vet players and see where we need to continue to grow, we have to play this really aggressive schedule. I feel good about what we've taken away, in terms of expanding our player pool, learning more about ourselves and figuring out the best positions for each player to help us be successful.
I examined a three-back, we played in a four-back. I think part of this is you also look at trends around the world and see what the demands of the modern game are. So I just feel like it's been a really good filtering period, exploratory period, and I feel it was what we had to go through, because evolving and learning is the only way I think we continue to get better.
FFT: Let's look at some players who have emerged. One, certainly, is Samantha Mewis, who saw regular time in central midfield.
JE: I specifically remember, it was in the January camp, I rewatched our Germany game from 2016 in SheBelieves, and Sam started in the game. Obviously, she's done well in the [National Women's Soccer League]. I remember having a meeting with my staff, and I said, “For us to see how much Sam can grow,” because I've seen her grow so much in her role at North Carolina, “we've got to commit to giving her valuable minutes, not just 15 or a one-off start or that kind of thing, and just see where she goes.”
I've really given her consistent minutes, looked at different personnel around her, but I really wanted to see what she could do with investment and a vote of confidence from us. And I feel in the last six, seven months she really has emerged. She's a threat from distance. Her final pass has gotten much better. She's got range in her passing. She would be first to say she's growing in terms of being good in the air. She's going to be a player that we're very much going to lean on, and I'm real excited by her growth.
What I say to the young players is, am I throwing them in? I'm throwing them in. But I'm throwing them in because I believe they have substance that can grow
FFT: Which other players showed you they belong?
JE: Rose Lavelle was limited, in terms of she's been dealing with an injury, but she stood out in January camp. She'd been in with me a couple of times before, but I felt there was a different level of commitment to Rose [this year].
Rose is a very different player. And I think there's definitely room for her in terms of our roster. I like her qualities. She's a natural lefty, but I just think her creativity and her sense of reading the game and how she can bring out the best in her teammates is going to be an important strength for us. She's showed enough to me that she's going to be an important piece of this puzzle.
I think that Abby [Dahlkemper] is someone that, with J.J. [Julie Ertz] playing more in midfield for her club, I wanted to make sure we had depth in the back. I've watched Abby for a long, long time, and similar to Sam, before the European trip I said I'm going to give her these minutes. I'm going to give her the time.
Part of the message, what I say to the young players is, am I throwing them in [to difficult situations]? I'm throwing them in. But I'm throwing them in because I believe they have substance that can grow, and I'm telling them I'm not expecting it to be perfect. I want to see enough to know there's going to be a continued investment.
I committed to starting [Dahlkemper] in both those [June matches against Sweden and Norway]. She dealt with some pretty high-caliber forwards, and I was pleased with what she did. She is someone that, with more time in this environment, is just going to continue to grow leaps and bounds.
What do I like about her? She’s a good communicator. I think, individually, she's done well in her defending, I think she,s strong on the ball. I think she's a player that's got good poise and a good passing range.
I think now with Abby -- and some of these young players -- they've got to get the experience of playing. You saw some of that a little bit in this [Tournament of Nations against Australia, Brazil and Japan]. It's the way the pass has to be spot on. The international game is just a whole 'nother level, in terms of pace and time on the ball, so that's just something you have to grow and learn in. But she's definitely someone who has impressed me, and I will continue to have her involved.