So here we are, at a predetermined moment in history for an inevitable coronation that seems to be leaving large swaths of the USWNT’s supporters queasy. Jill Ellis, finally, is the new manager of the United States Women’s National Team. The decision to sack Tom Sermanni in the middle of a two-game series with China was clumsily timed and inarticulately explained by USSF president Sunil Gulati, who will likely see his presidency of the federation come to a head over the next two years with a vital World Cup for a men’s program that has been making halting progress forward for the better part of two decades now before next year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada serves as perhaps the USWNT’s last best chance at a world championship before a venerated generation rides off into the sunset.
It’s that pressure to win that likely prompted the controversial sacking of Sermanni after the USWNT’s unsteady display in the Algarve Cup at the beginning of the year. But the circumstance of the dismissal perhaps cast an icy pall on the search to fill a job which should theoretically be one of the best in the world in women’s football. It may have also winnowed the pool of candidates, with the firing coming in the middle of the NWSL season doing the USSF no favors either. Institutional matters aside, opinion was largely divided amongst a fanbase left to argue fierily amongst itself as to whether the plug had been pulled out of necessity or out of impatience and insecurity by Gulati and U.S. Soccer CEO and secretary general Dan Flynn.
The temperature of the room has plunged precipitously since Ellis’ name was seriously linked with the job she’s seemingly been groomed for for over a decade. The icy reception that the prospect of Ellis taking over in the run up to Friday’s announcement has seldom been seen before from a fanbase that has usually left the grousing until managers are settled upon their throne. The venom has come swift and hard in the face of Ellis’ candidacy likely making for uncomfortable reading for the USSF illuminati, though you suspect popular opinion ceased being a barometer of any import to those pulling the strings long ago.
Part of the problem is that when a candidate gets groomed for success for an age without taking that final step as it feels like Ellis has, the public tends to walk away with the feeling that they’re having something (or someone) shoved down their throat. For the longest time, it’s felt like all that was missing from the tale of Ellis’ ascension to the top chair in American women’s soccer has been the exclamation point that critics could be bludgeoned over the head with as they expressed doubt over her suitability for the job. When Ellis narrowly lost out in the NCAA Tournament final in 2000 to North Carolina, it seemed inevitable that that exclamation point would arrive sooner rather than later.
Inevitability is just a thirteen letter word though, and despite six straight Pac-10 titles, the biggest prize never came. There’s certainly an argument to be made over how unlucky the club was to have gone down to penalties in the final in 2004 to Notre Dame, but that was largely the high point in Ellis’ reign in Westwood. The Bruins were humiliated by a rampant Portland team in the final a year later, their last title game appearance under Ellis. The 2007 semi-final defeat to USC, in a match they had been leading 1-0 and against a team they had traditionally owned, was in essence the beginning of the end, with the prospect of the Trojans winning the nationally title Westwood had lusted after for so long a grim sight indeed.
By the end under Ellis, UCLA was a shell of its former self, having effectively been neutered by a Stanford program that had gone from being the little sibling the Bruins had beat up on regularly, not beating UCLA in six seasons, to the side that went 4-0-0 against the Westwood side in Ellis’ final two years, scoring nine goals and conceding just one. The Card had evolved and turned into the monster UCLA had never quite grown into. By the time Ellis left after a 2010 that had seen the club with its worst league finish since 1996 and worst NCAA tournament showing since 2002, few were tipping the long-time Bruins boss for the USWNT job.
While Ellis’ reputation had been damaged by her inability to win the biggest prize at UCLA and the club’s fading fortunes in the final few years of her tenure, the most luster had been lost in the insipid performance of the U.S. at the U20 World Cup in Germany in the Summer of 2010. Already with crushing expectations after the win just a few years earlier in Chile, Ellis’ team wilted in the German heat, wheezing through group stage matches against Ghana and South Korea before a brutal quarterfinal against eventual runners-up, Nigeria. The penalty shootout defeat to the African side remains controversial, but the Americans had also let a lead slip in the final quarter of an hour, looking defensively frail throughout. It remains the U.S.’ worst finish in the U20 age group at a FIFA competition. Talent certainly cannot be an excuse, as Ellis’ team had eighteen of twenty-one players who are or have played in the NWSL, with another (Sam Mewis) likely to join next year and one other (Casey Short) likely to have played at the top level if not for injury.
Ellis’ performance as USSF’s Director of Development may only be tangentially related to her role as the new USWNT head coach, but one could argue said performance doesn’t do her many favors. The U17 age group continues to be a blight on the U.S.’ overall copy, the team having bowed out meekly in the group stage of the 2012 U17 World Cup amidst an embarrassing raft of “group of death” excuses from apologists, while the group missed out on the 2014 edition of the tournament, failing to qualify for the second time in three cycles under the stead of former Ellis lieutenant BJ Snow who, bizarrely, was kept on after the failure. The U20 World Cup success of 2012 under Steve Swanson certainly can’t be overlooked, but few are tipping the 2014 U20 team to defend that crown. Major questions must be asked over the development of young players over the past few years as well, with the next two draft classes for the NWSL looking perilously short of strength in depth and players able to make a potential impact on the USWNT.
Ironically, Ellis was afforded one final opportunity to make her case this past week when the USWNT, under her care as caretaker boss, headed north to take on a determined Canada side. The result was a plodding, unconvincing draw that did little to set minds at ease. The brutal and maddening reality is that there is little room for any real evaluation until the real thing next Summer. A set of upcoming friendlies against European contender France will certainly provide hints, but the utterly uncompetitive CONCACAF qualifying section will certainly do the USWNT no favors in the long-term development of the squad. By the time the Algarve Cup rolls around next year, the U.S. will clearly be attached to Ellis through the Summer for better or for worse.
There are no more heads to place on pikes, no more contingencies, no more Plan B’s for the U.S. 2015 is the last, best hope for this generation of players to win the world title that’s eluded them since 1999, and that generation’s fate is now irrevocably tethered to Ellis. Gulati and Flynn are gambling on the USWNT’s new boss being the leader to get that squad over the line in Vancouver on July 5. They, and a skeptical base of supporters, will be hoping desperately that the future does not reflect the past as far as Ellis is concerned and that this saga will scarcely be remembered some fourteen months from now.