SAN DIEGO — Nearly three years after earning consecutive Women’s World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019, former U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis is seated in the outdoor patio of a local coffee shop, warm beverage in hand.
On a near-perfect Southern California day in May and just a couple of miles from the beach, Ellis, now president of the National Women’s Soccer League expansion side San Diego Wave FC, was upbeat ahead of her team’s inaugural regular season home-opener. The club president appeared enthusiastic about the start of not only the latest chapter in her life, but also her new role, which has allowed her to have a different impact within the game.
“Stepping away from coaching made me realize I want to pursue this bigger purpose,” said the English-born American citizen, who had made a name for herself as a successful college coach with UCLA before joining the U.S. national team structure. “You just suddenly realize it’s bigger than just the 120 x 72 [field].”
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After becoming the first and only head coach to win back-to-back Women’s World Cups, Ellis made headlines in 2019 when she stated that she would finish her run with the USWNT, leading to her last game in October of that year. Moving on from her remarkable managerial spell that started in 2014, Ellis then worked behind the scenes through a mentorship program and scholarship fund for women’s coaches, before eventually looking towards more ways to influence the sport. Despite the fact that other national team positions were open, she became intrigued by the business end of growing the game and recognized that she could help in a front office position at the club level.
“I could have stayed in the safety of the sideline, because it’s familiar to me, it’s comfortable for me, but I was ready,” noted Ellis.
“I’ve said that you won’t win world championships without having a really good club infrastructure, and although we’ve had club soccer in this country for a while and this is our third iteration of it or go around on it, I just felt that was a platform that I really could commit to bring some experience to.”
After taking the leap with the NWSL’s most recent franchise last year, 2021 was a whirlwind. Initially set for a debut with Sacramento, the league announced last summer that the home for the expansion team would instead be in San Diego, with Ellis leading the way as president. With its debut NWSL season set for early 2022, the team, which didn’t even have a name or crest until late 2021, needed to develop at a blistering pace.
“We were on a very tight timeline to launch this team. It was shorter probably than any pro franchise has ever gotten off the ground. We literally announced our name, our colors, and then five months later, we got a team on the pitch,” said Ellis.
Most importantly, she also had to move across the country. Ellis, her brother and three dogs made the lengthy drive from Miami to San Diego. Her wife and daughter, via plane, were in charge of bringing their two cats. “We were kind of like Noah’s Ark,” stated Ellis with a laugh. “Leave no man behind!”
Like many other San Diegan transplants, she soon became enamored with the area. During the rare moments she can step away from work, Ellis can be found hiking around hills in the northern end of the county or entertaining family and friends who want to visit the tourist-friendly city. “I like the tempo of life here,” she said about her surroundings. “Obviously you can push it in terms of your work, but then there’s this kind of ability to exhale.”
Which isn’t to say that she has too much time to rest these days. As pleasant as the backdrop might be, Ellis was candid about the difficulties of her new role.
No longer coaching on the sidelines, most of her day-to-day tactical maneuvering is now spent on the phone and in meetings. Stepping into the job with the Wave, there was a sudden need for a greater understanding of ticket sales, marketing, sponsorship and administration. Before, as a national team coach, she would typically get five to 10 emails a day. As president of a new NWSL franchise though, that number has skyrocketed to around 50 per day, regularly.
“I’ve said this and people kind of do a double take. I slept like a baby as a national team coach,” Ellis stated bluntly. But with her current responsibilities that expand far beyond the reaches of a field? There isn’t the same level of control over several components and elements, which “keeps you up at night.”
“I’ve actually felt more pressure in this role than any job I’ve ever had.”
As Ellis tells it, this pressure is not about being overwhelmed by external factors, but more so of an internal recognition that “everything matters” to her. Nonetheless, there was a sense of confidence and excitement when discussing the challenge. What also helps is that, nowadays, she’s “not shy about learning.”
When Ellis was a young coach, she admitted that she thought she needed to have all of the answers. She never showed any hints of not knowing what to do, even if she was confused. Once this thought-process was let go, Ellis believes that she grew as a leader by simply looking nearby and tapping into the skillset of those around her who could help. Had she not done that, she assumes she would have never been able to take her current job.
“Listen, set pieces on the [national] team was not my absolute focus point. I had an expert do that,” said Ellis. “You give them enough flexibility, plus support to allow their strengths to shine.”
“It’s the same approach [as club president].”
Ellis is no longer coaching — and confessed that she’s so focused on getting the club off the ground that she doesn’t really think about returning to the sideline — but in a sense, she’s still directing and instructing a squad within her organization, and her exact experience with the USWNT has allowed her to bring along people who fully believe in her vision. For Laura Wolf Stein, San Diego Wave’s Vice President of Marketing, working with Ellis was an invaluable opportunity for many hires like herself.
“You would ask any of those people what were the draws, what was the hook that had you leave your job that you loved to come over and take this risk, make this jump. For me personally and for so many of us, [it was] being able to be coached by one of the best coaches in the world,” Stein stated.
“I don’t care if she’s never been the head of a business. I want to be coached by someone who knows how to pull the best out of people. All of us feel that.”
But what about her influence outside of the office and on the pitch? Will Ellis head over to training and tinker with some tactics?
From day one, Ellis made a point to head coach Casey Stoney that “this is your team to coach, to select the players, to play how you want to play.” Of course, there have been conversations about how they see the game and about what style of play would suit the team, but in the end, it’s Stoney’s job to mold, shape, select and train. And few could complain about how things have been going with the current setup.
Although the debut club understandably had a shaky start in the 2022 preseason NWSL Challenge Cup tournament with a 1W-2T-3L record, once the regular season began in late April, San Diego has been exceptional in its first few performances.
As Ellis put it in the interview before their home-opener: “[We] cannot sort of slowly grow in this. Listen, I get it, there’s a process but we want to come in and we want to have an impact.”
In their first official NWSL regular season match on May 1, San Diego earned a 1-0 away win over the Houston Dash. Six days later in their inaugural home-opener, the club took things to another level in an outstanding and lopsided 4-0 victory against NJ/NY Gotham FC. With star player Alex Morgan scoring four goals, becoming just the third player in NWSL history to reach this single-game record,it was a spectacle for the 5,000 supporters that packed the scenic Torero Stadium at the University of San Diego.
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“To have the turnout at our home-opener and then to be able to put on a show like we did tonight, getting a clean sheet — which is extremely important — and scoring goals, I don’t think we could’ve asked for a better game for ourselves and for this city,” said Morgan afterwards, who was a part of Ellis’ 2015 and 2019 World Cup-winning rosters.
One week later in front of 5,000 more at Torero Stadium on May 15, San Diego held onto their perfect start with a convincing 2-1 win at home against the Chicago Red Stars, who were finalists in last season’s playoffs. While defender Kailen Riehl scored for the first time in the 2022 NWSL regular season, Morgan increased her incredible goal tally to five in just three matches.
“Immensely proud,” said assistant coach Rich Gunney after the 2-1 result last Sunday. “Proud of the whole staff, Casey [Stoney], the environment and the experience we’ve created already and how the players are thriving.”
Is this all a sign of more thrilling and captivating performances in San Diego Wave’s future? “I used to always tell the [national team] players if they played really, really well — because it’s about entertainment — I would say I would have bought a ticket to watch you guys play today,” noted Ellis before that home-opener. “Entertainment for me, when I was a coach, was having the players feel synchronized, energized, ready, prepared to try and get the result and battle hard. Now it’s the same thing, but I want more people to enjoy that feeling with me.”
In the stands, more could follow.
The NWSL club will soon move away from the intimate and compact Torero Stadium (capacity: 6,000). By September, they’ll host games at Snapdragon Stadium, a 35,000+ venue being built by San Diego State University for their college football program. Once the site that housed the NFL’s Chargers, who broke the hearts of countless local sports fans after moving up north to Los Angeles in 2017, there’s a sense that Ellis and the Wave can be part of a process that fully dispels the negative memories left by the professional football franchise.
There’s an immense amount of work to do for the young NWSL club to help accomplish this and to win over more supporters — especially when you consider those who have recently questioned their lofty price tag on limited jerseys — but the numbers from their last nationally-televised match showcases that there is potential. During an April 2 preseason Challenge Cup match between San Diego and Los Angeles’ Angel City FC, a total TV viewership of 456,000 on CBS easily surpassed any MLS regular season match that weekend, as well as the the men’s league average of 276,000 viewers for the 2021 season.
Time will tell if these numbers are a flash in the pan, a nod to the power of women’s soccer in Southern California, or perhaps more Angelenos tuning in. Whether the San Diego Wave can maintain their entertaining style of play and fill Snapdragon Stadium with a passionate fanbase also remains to be seen.
On and off the pitch, it’s far too early to make long-term predictions for the NWSL franchise, but those initial moments have certainly shown that there is undeniable potential. Either way, for Ellis, she’ll continue down her new path. Whether hiking in the hills or taking calls in the office, she’ll aim to find ways of progressing in her latest post-national team chapter.
“How can you continue to grow? I think change is sometimes hard but it’s also where you maximize growth,” said Ellis.
“Even if sometimes it’s not perfect or you fail at it, you’re always going to grow if you’re challenging yourself.”