From Across the Pond to the Hall of Fame: World Cup Winning Coach Jill Ellis Reflects on Her Journey

Jill Ellis coached the U.S. Women's National Team to two World Cups, in 2015 and 2019

Jill Ellis
Jill Ellis.

While growing up in England, Jill Ellis wasn't familiar with the idea of a sports Hall of Fame.

"That's not something that's part of the fabric of sports [in England], so for me, it wasn't something I went into the game thinking about," says Ellis, who coached the U.S. Women's National Team to World Cups in both 2015 and 2019, in an interview with PEOPLE.

She came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1981 and finally played her first team game of soccer; at the time, they didn't have organized girls teams in England. An illustrious career followed, and on Nov. 30, Ellis was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas, alongside Landon Donovan, Lauren Cheney Holiday and DaMarcus Beasley.

The honor recognizes Ellis' role in restoring the USWNT as the world's best: When she took over in 2014, the team hadn't won a World Cup since Brandi Chastain's famous penalty kick in 1999 (though the team won Olympic gold medals at the Olympics in 2004, 2008 and 2012).

Ellis tells PEOPLE that when she became USWNT coach, she saw a rapidly changing game at the highest level, one in which "it's virtually impossible to break down a highly-organized defensive block."

Given that, transition counterattacks — when the defense hasn't gotten a chance to set up — are crucial. So are corner kicks — a fact underscored by the 2011 World Cup final, in which Japan tied the game late on a corner kick and then won in a penalty kick shootout.

The game was evolving. The USWNT had to evolve as well, says Ellis.

"Even if we're on the 'right track,' if we sit there we'll get run over," Ellis says. "My challenge was, we're not gonna do this the same. If we do this the same we'll get the same results [as previous World Cups]."

To that end, shortly after becoming head coach, Ellis got her team out of their comfort zone. She took them to Brazil for a friendly match, and then again to France. They lost both games handily. "I really wanted them to suffer a bit," says Ellis, adding, "It gave us a chance to improve on our weaknesses and to know what our strengths are."

Fast-forward a few months to the 2015 World Cup in Canada. The U.S. team got better every game. By the semifinal against Germany, "we were bubbling," says Ellis. They beat Germany 2-0 before topping Japan 5-2 in the finals, dominating the last two matches by a combined score of 7-2.

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Four years later. In the 2019 World Cup, Ellis says the USWNT had a "leaving nothing to chance" mentality. They worked tirelessly on set pieces, where, says Ellis, "You can greatly manipulate the situation" with picks and other wrinkles. The philosophy was the same: Defenses have become so stout that it's virtually impossible to score against a defense that has set up.

The USWNT rolled to another World Cup title, beating the Netherlands 2-0 in the finals.

US womens soccer
The 2019 U.S. Women's National Team. VI Images/Getty

Working to Develop Female Coaches

Ellis' Hall of Fame resume includes much more than her success as a coach. She's a former ambassador for the U.S. Soccer Federation, where she worked to increase the number of female coaches in youth soccer, where coaches are predominantly male even for girls teams. Ellis' longtime efforts led to the creation of the Jill Ellis Scholarship Fund, which aims to develop professional networks of female coaches.

"Guys have people who can open doors for them. But because there are so few of us, we don't have a natural network," says Ellis, who told The New York Times that she never had a female coach during her playing career, which included winning a high school state title in Fairfax, Va., and being a third-team All-American at William & Mary College. When Ellis was the head coach at UCLA from 1999 to 2010, she says 98 percent of her players had never had a female coach.

"You get to a point in your life where it's ... about improving things for the people that come behind you," she says.

CHARLOTTE, NC - OCTOBER 03: Jill Ellis of the United States watches her team during a game between Korea Republic and USWNT at Bank of America Stadium on October 3, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
Jill Ellis. Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty

Now, Ellis' focus is on her club team, the San Diego Wave FC of the National Women's Soccer League. Ellis was hired as the team's president in 2021, and this season, the team's first, the Wave made the playoffs.

Ellis is someone who perpetually seeks a challenge. When she got hired, she had to educate herself on the intricacies of marketing and ticket pricing. After her crash course on the business side, she is turning some of her focus back to the pitch.

In both the women's and men's games, Ellis believes the key to sustained international success is a strong club league, describing it as a "symbiosis."

She would know. She has spent her professional life at the pinnacle of the sport. And even if becoming a Hall of Famer wasn't on her radar when she first started playing, she now describes the honor as "the cherry on top" of her remarkable career.

"When you start getting messages from people, you realize how many people have been a part of your journey," she says. "Friends, players, colleague, family. It's pretty special how much it means not just to you, but to them."

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