Jill Ellis is free now.
She’ll tell you she’s the same person she’s been, and she would know best. And if you saw her last week at the United Soccer Coaches convention, you’d think she’s plenty busy. Ellis gave four speeches, was presented with two awards, and received standing ovations from huge crowds that took in every word.
But the signs are clear in many senses of the word “free.” Since her tenure as U.S. women’s soccer team coach ended in October, Ellis has had more time to spend with her wife, Betsy, and daughter, Lilly. She has spoken her mind more on a range of issues. And she no longer bears the burden of the unrelenting pressure that comes with the biggest coaching job in American soccer.
“Not having to focus on the next camp or the next roster has allowed me to kind of come back into the community of soccer, and it’s been wonderful,” Ellis said at the end of the convention.
She saluted the U.S. team’s rabid fan base. Yes, the same one that brayed at her constantly on social media for not playing this or that player, especially any given fan’s personal favorite.
“We have the best fans in the world,” Ellis said. “That energy — yeah, they are the 12th man, 100%. Fantastic fans. Not just invested in the game, invested in the players and the people around it.”
"We felt like we were playing at home, except for one game, in the World Cup," Ellis said.
That one game was the quarterfinal against France in Paris, and by the end of the night, the 10,000 Americans in attendance were out-cheering the 35,000 home fans around them. When Tobin Heath finished what would have been the U.S.' third goal if not for a controversial offside flag, the building shook.
Ellis let the crowd at one of her speeches in on a secret about that game. Remember Megan Rapinoe’s free-kick goal that flummoxed French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi? It was the same set-piece play that the U.S. had run in a game against France in 2018, and it produced a goal that time, too. Ellis kept it in the playbook and, with help from longtime assistant coach Tony Gustavsson, redeployed it in practice.
It turned out France still couldn’t defend it. The home team trailed within five minutes and never recovered.
That was one of many great stories with which Ellis regaled the convention.
She went deep on the evolution of her team’s tactics from her first World Cup win to her second, with statistics and videos. She raved about Rose Lavelle’s creative skills and Abby Dahlkemper’s pinpoint passing, She joked about having to deal with Rapinoe and President Trump going at each other on Twitter.
Ellis told the crowd why she had anointed Alyssa Naeher as the No. 1 goalkeeper right after Hope Solo’s departure, and kept Naeher there through thick and thin: because she wanted “this lion to roar inside” of a player who lacks Solo’s vocal charisma.
Naeher rewarded that trust with a career-defining penalty-kick save in the semifinal win over England.
“At the end of the England game, I probably squeezed the life out of her," Ellis said. "That was my happy, happy moment.”
Ellis also told some deeply personal stories.
After receiving the Award of Excellence at the convention’s Coaches of Women’s Soccer breakfast, she reflected on what it meant to immigrate to America with her family from their native England, where women were banned from playing soccer.
She spoke of her past insecurity with being publicly out, even among her fellow soccer coaches. And she spoke of how she and Betsy adopted Lily through a connection made by a Mexican player Ellis had coached at UCLA some years before.
The last of Ellis’ appearances came when she received the Walt Chyzowych Lifetime Achievement Award, the convention’s highest honor.
There are two honorees each year. Ellis was joined by fellow history-maker Lincoln Phillips, the Trinidad-born coach of the Howard University teams that won national titles in 1971 and 1974 — stunning the predominantly white college game.
Phillips called Ellis “one of my favorite coaches," and Ellis paid a compliment in return.
"We're both immigrants to this country. We're both people that came here with a dream," she said. "I'm so honored to be in this class with you. I got a history lesson tonight."
A few minutes after Ellis left the stage, I raised something with her that I've wanted to ask about for a while.
On the eve of that France game, Ellis gave the world a quote that might go down as her epitaph: “Some teams will visit pressure, but I think we live there.”
I asked what that pressure was really like. Her answer might surprise you.
“I absolutely cocoon myself in terms of that,” she said. “You just know, so you don’t have to feel it or think about it. ... If you think about it and dwell on it, you’re not able to do the job at hand.”
It couldn’t have been easy, especially in a World Cup year. But she did it.
"When you become so immersed in the work that's to be done or the tasks and the processes at hand, I truly didn't think about it," she said. "Because it's like your living room. It's always there. We know that."
These days, Ellis gets to spend more time in her actual living room.