NEW YORK — The spotlights turned bright as Jill Ellis walked onto a stage on Friday to face an assembly of more than 140 reporters, nearly 10 times the size of the average U.S. women’s soccer team game’s press corps.
That, as much as anything, is a sign that the World Cup is near.
In fact, as Ellis was first to note, the program’s equivalent of Super Bowl media day took place two weeks to the day before the World Cup kicks off.
There is always pressure on this team, from its rabid fan base and a nation that celebrates winners and ignores losers. This summer, though, it’s even higher than usual, and it’s squarely on Ellis.
“You don’t go into coaching if you’re not willing to step into that moment and go, ‘OK, this is what it’s going to take,' " said Ellis, now in her fifth year as national team head coach. "Everything hinges on winning and losing.”
After Sunday’s final warm-up game, against Mexico in Harrison, N.J. (12 p.m., ESPN and Univision Deportes), the Americans head overseas for a training camp before their June 11 tournament opener against Thailand.
They will be joined in France by thousands of American fans — especially for the June 16 game against Chile in Paris — and in spirit by millions more watching from home.
As with four years ago in Canada, they will not just cheer, they will demand. There is no fan base in women’s soccer, and perhaps all of women’s sports, that matches the U.S. national team’s combined scale and passion.
“When you step into a team that, when I took over, was ranked No. 1 in the world, you realize that there is zero margin for error,” Ellis said. “And you can either just kind of wallow in that or go, ‘Hell, this is part of the job, and this is what I want to do,’ and take that as a really exciting challenge.”
She relayed advice that her father, a longtime youth soccer coach in northern Virginia, gave her when she started out as a coach in her early 20s.
“You’re not a coach unless you’ve been fired, because that’s part of the job,” John Ellis told Jill.
She has since added her own catchphrase.
“You don’t coach to satisfy media, satisfy fans,” she said. "You really try and look at the task at hand and say, ‘That’s what I believe, in my opinion, and my staff, and collectively, what we think is going to help us be successful.’ ”
Yet, for as resolute of an image as Ellis presents, it’s clear that she’s still haunted by the U.S. loss to rival Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics. Just over a year after winning the World Cup, Ellis’ team failed to crack a bunkering defense, lost a penalty shootout after a 1-1 tie and suffered its earliest exit ever in a major tournament.
“Usually you play teams that potentially can’t match up with you, so they take that approach. But here was a world power taking that approach,” Ellis said of Sweden’s winning strategy. “It made me realize … we need to make sure that we have players that can create space, that can break lines when there’s no space, that can turn in a pocket. The type of players that can really change a game when a team is so highly organized defensively.”
It was, she continued, “the initial moment for me when I was like, ‘Huh, this is different.’ ”
Ellis has those players now in Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle and many others. This World Cup team might be the most skilled in U.S. women’s soccer history. But talent alone won’t win a title. Like any group of players, it has to be built into the best team.
That is by far Ellis’ most important job this summer, and there is more pressure on her than ever to get it right.