Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By CAITLIN MURRAY
While much of the soccer world has their attention turned toward Brazil where the U.S. Men’s National Team will soon begin their World Cup campaign, the U.S. Women’s National Team are preparing for a World Cup, too.
Just days from the one-year mark counting down to the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, Jill Ellis flew into her first USWNT camp as permanent head coach of the team – and she is ready to make her mark.
When the USWNT faces France for two friendlies this week, it will be Ellis’ first time at the helm of the squad knowing that a World Cup is in her hands. With five months until World Cup qualifiers and now less than a year until the main event, she is getting down to business quickly.
“I definitely have a plan,” Ellis told SBI from Tampa, Fla. on Monday. “I actually said to the team tonight that even though I’m very familiar with a lot of them and getting more familiar with some of them, I still think there’s things that we want to assess and look at to put the pieces together.
“Even though I am very familiar with them, I will have a process and an evaluation period to make some decisions.”
But the time for serious experimentation has largely passed, having mostly been used up by Ellis’ predecessor Tom Sermanni, who was abruptly fired in April after 16 months on the job. That may not be a problem for Ellis, who knows the team well after serving as the USWNT’s assistant coach in 2012 and as interim coach twice before – but she will need to assert her vision quickly and move on from whatever issues marred Sermanni’s tenure.
“I can’t really say what was missing or what wasn’t missing – and I can’t even determine if something was missing,” Ellis said when asked about what she needs to address in light of the USWNT shake-up. “But what I can say is, whenever you come into a team, you certainly as a coach want to establish the things you think are important, whether it’s in regards to the environment or the technical area. You want to start to establish and layer in the things you believe are important that are going to help this team be successful.”
And so the process has begun of imposing her vision on the team. As much as that is about the team culture and the style of play, it’s also about personnel – and in some areas, Ellis is hoping to move swiftly.
The defensive line appeared to be something of a riddle to Sermanni as he fielded a new back four in most games, as if trying to crack a code. Shortly before his dismissal, he told SBI it was the least settled position in his player pool. But Ellis said she wants to lock that group down first.
“I think the most important relationship to build will be our back four and our goalkeeper,” Ellis said. “So, I think fairly soon we’ll be starting to firm up the players that we’re looking at for those roles.”
Ellis is giving other positions a little more time to try some new ideas out.
One of those ideas is moving Kelley O’Hara all the way up the field to forward for this roster – although it isn’t exactly a new idea. O’Hara had been a forward in her youth career, but by 2010 was a midfielder for the USWNT and during the 2012 Olympics, played every minute in London as a newly converted left back.
But it was at forward that O’Hara made an impression on Ellis, winning the MAC Hermann Trophy while at Stanford when Ellis coached UCLA, Ellis said.
“I’ve seen Kelley as a front player,” Ellis said of naming O’Hara to the USWNT roster as a forward for the first time since early 2010. “For me, she has an attacking mentality and, if we’re looking at playing with three forwards, a flank player has to be confident to go 1v1 and cross the ball and do those types of things. I’d like to see Kelley in that role and assess her in that role.
“She was put into the back because there was not any depth back there and now I think we do have more depth, so we can look at her in a position higher up the field.”
If Ellis does try a new iteration of the 4-3-3 against France, it should offer plenty of insight. France, ranked No. 4 in FIFA’s world rankings, is a team stacked with talent and will likely be one of the toughest opponents Ellis has faced leading the USWNT.
Ellis’ record with the USWNT from her interim stints is 6-0-3, including draws twice to No. 2-ranked Germany in 2012 friendlies during a post-Olympic victory tour. But with a different roster in a different stage of the World Cup cycle – and Ellis in a new role, too – a strong opponent like France should help in making some decisions.
“Certainly the score line is something you’re always aware of, but I am more interested in looking at how we’re playing because we know our end point: We want to do well in the World Cup,” Ellis said. “If we play as well as we’re capable of playing, then I think the score line will be in our favor. But I also think France gives us a very good test and very good assessment of where we are.”
“We are a team that’s going to find some answers from the next few months together.”
The USWNT hosts France on Saturday in Tampa, Fla. and then again next Thursday in East Hartford, Conn. Both matches will be streamed on U.S. Soccer’s website.