United should also step out of traditional circles. It should interview Jill Ellis.
It’s not about political correctness or responding to cultural shifts. It’s about her track record.
Ellis is best known for guiding the U.S. national team to the past two Women’s World Cup titles, an unprecedented feat. Her coaching experience traces to 1988, starting in the college ranks and passing through U.S. youth development and junior national teams.
She managed big personalities and fragile egos, implemented tactical plans and adjusted to changing circumstances. She is a meticulous planner, and her teams usually play fun, progressive soccer. Twice she was voted FIFA women’s coach of the year.
Ellis, 54, is English by birth, the daughter of a well-traveled coaching father. Coaching is in her blood. Her name is recognized nationally and internationally.
Most of all, she wins — a lot: 106-7-19 in 5½ years leading the national team.
Ellis has never coached a men’s team, but she is open to it. Last year, as her U.S. women’s tenure wound down, she said, “I went to the pro licensing [programs] and what I learned a lot in there was coaches, whether it’s MLS, [lower-division] USL, international, we deal with many of the same things in terms of management and tactics and such.”
She added, “I wouldn’t rule anything out, because I don’t think that’s how I’m wired.”
There are few women coaching in men’s pro sports, though that’s starting to change with the appointment of female assistants in the NFL and NBA. How long until Becky Hammon or Katie Sowers is in charge?
In soccer, before she became the French women’s national team coach, Corinne Diacre guided Clermont, a second-division men’s club. Carolina Morace briefly coached an Italian third-division men’s team.
Why not MLS?
Ellis is available. Upon her U.S. departure last fall, she said she wanted to take her time in exploring fresh opportunities. She remains employed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, focused on increasing the number of women in coaching. She reportedly interviewed for the England women’s national team job.
The biggest strike against Ellis’s candidacy is her lack of experience coaching on the club level. She has never worked in the National Women’s Soccer League or its predecessors. Coaching a club through the grind of a regular season is different from periodically gathering a national team for a burst of matches. There is also a difference between leading a cast with varying backgrounds and skill levels — players working for a paycheck rather than their country — and overseeing the giants of women’s soccer.
With the U.S. team, Ellis was coaching an all-star squad in an environment without much parity and in which the United States was favored to win every single game. Even on their worst day, the U.S. women were almost invincible. Little could go wrong, and little did. Ellis’s only misstep in major competition was a defeat in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, and that came in a penalty kick tiebreaker against formidable Sweden.
Jumping from the four-time world champions to a downtrodden MLS team is like moving from Jordan, Magic and the 1992 Dream Team to the Sacramento Kings. There are no 13-0 laughers in MLS.
Given that lack of club experience, Ellis may not, ultimately, be the right choice for United. The organization may need someone who has a feel for the pro scene, has gone through season-long adversity and is well-versed in the domestic and international player market.
But from all indications, United is in no hurry to hire someone. Longtime assistant Chad Ashton will oversee the final seven games and, if fortunes turn significantly, the playoffs.
One person familiar with United’s search plans said the organization is planning to be “thoughtful and thorough” and “get smarter through that process.” Part of that process should include talking to smart, successful soccer people of all backgrounds. And in American soccer, there are few who fit that description like Ellis.
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