MOSCOW — Jill Ellis’ World Cup is another summer away, her calendar packed with training camps, tournaments and roster decisions. The thought of being in France for the women’s version of soccer’s global championship — one that her top-ranked U.S. national team will seek to defend — has seemed a thousand years away.
But upon visiting the Russian capital this week as part of a brief promotional visit arranged by Fox Sports, the Americans’ head coach took in the World Cup spirit that will resurface on a smaller scale in 2019.
“It’s been so far on the horizon, now it starts to come into focus,” she said. “I was walking around [Wednesday] and those are things you are not privy to when you are on the inside [of the team bubble]. Seeing the fans, hearing the buzz, even being a fan to watch the games and the excitement of the competition, our World Cup will have all of the exciting narratives this one has had.
“I’ve been really energized by this whole experience.”
Her experience included tickets to the semifinal between Croatia and her native England. Earlier, during a roundtable discussion with a half–dozen U.S. reporters, she interrupted her thoughts to joke about a passing shower favoring the Three Lions and, when hearing English supporters in song outside the building, offer a little cheer.
England is in her heart, but U.S. soccer is on her brain. And with a World Cup devoid of a U.S. team winding down, American soccer’s attention will gradually begin turning toward the U.S. women, who still must qualify this fall for next year’s competition. The United States and Canada are heavy favorites for two of the three automatic berths from the Concacaf region.
For Ellis, the approach of the qualifying tournament — Oct. 4–17 at venues in North Carolina and Texas — has prompted her to narrow the core player pool and intensify the focus on tactics, style and chemistry.
The next testing ground is the Tournament of Nations July 26–Aug. 2 with Brazil, Japan and Australia. There are also two friendlies against Chile late in the summer.
Assuming they then qualify for the world event, the Americans will seek to rebound from quarterfinal elimination at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil — their earliest exit at a major competition since the women’s game gained formal recognition from FIFA in 1991.
They would surely enter as favorites, but with the women’s game growing globally, the margin has narrowed a bit. Ellis does not necessarily believe the pool of teams capable of winning the championship has grown — only seven countries have filled the 14 slots in the seven prior finals — but she said “there are more teams capable of making big runs and pulling upsets.”
She cited European champion Netherlands, plus Spain and Italy, and noted two–time champion Germany is trailing Iceland in the qualifying race and might need a playoff to advance. “There are more people in the conversation,” said Ellis, who was appointed in 2014.
As women’s soccer has grown, it has made small strides in gaining greater equity with the men’s game. FIFA says it will no longer schedule Women’s World Cup matches on artificial turf — that was a big issue for the players leading to the 2015 turf–only tournament in Canada — and the U.S. Soccer Federation has significantly cut back the number of home games on fake grass.
FIFA implemented video replay at this summer’s World Cup and seems likely to use it next year in France.
“I can’t see them not having it,” Ellis said. “It would be a little insulting if we’re not afforded the same opportunity. There is too much at stake to not have it. Our game, our passion, our drive, our motivation is at the same level as the men’s.”
The difference in prize money remains enormous, though the men’s game generates far greater revenue than the women’s.
Female influence in male–dominated FIFA also lags. Under reforms instituted in the wake of a 2015 corruption scandal, the 37–member FIFA Council includes a female representative from each of the six confederations and a female secretary general.
“I know they have a new leader [Gianni Infantino], but my hope is there would be even more females in roles within FIFA, as big as our game is,” Ellis said. “But that is also my hope within federations. This is the global game now for men and women, so there should be leadership decisions. You have got females leading countries in politics. It should be the same institutional opportunity. They need someone with a strong sense of motivation for pushing the women’s agenda.”
As for her team, Ellis has summoned 60 players since the Olympics, including 29 newcomers. With the World Cup nearing, she has cut the core group to 28 (23 will make the traveling squad). She will, however, keep a close eye on peripheral candidates, such as 17–year–old attacker Sophia Smith, who is headed to the Under–20 World Cup next month in France.
Part of the winnowing process is determining which veterans are still capable of contributing and which young players are ready for the international stage.
The most notable veteran in a cloudy situation is midfielder Carli Lloyd, who made history with a hat trick in the 2015 final against Japan in Vancouver. At 35, she is past her prime, but like a fading Abby Wambach at the last World Cup, Lloyd could fill a specific role.
“With Carli, there’s that ‘it’ factor, but we have to be smart with where she is in her career,” Ellis said. “The conversation I’ve had with Carli is that I do know what she is capable of doing, I do see value in what she has.”
Ellis will emphasize versatility in selecting her squad, a reaction to “where the game is going. What I saw coming out of the Olympics was we need to have players that can play against a parked bus and solve that, and we have to have players who can play in the open and transition.”
She noted the adaptability of Crystal Dunn (who fills several roles) and rising midfielder Rose Lavelle.
“That is part of why you have a 2 1/2–year process. You can start to see where players are trending,” Ellis said. “What I look at is: Can this player help us? Someone who is not a starter, how can they help us? Part of this player selection is knowing the mental piece, as well — what a player has done in the [pressure] cooker. Ultimately, I’ve got to pick the best 23. I still have some time.”