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Jill Ellis made big mistakes, but left the USWNT better than she found it

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Ellis didn’t just win two World Cups, she laid an excellent foundation for her successor.

Jill Ellis, a back-to-back World Cup-winning coach, announced Tuesday she was stepping down from the United States Women’s National Team. The resignation of a coach with her resume would usually be met with grave concern by fans for the state of the program. In this case, the news was met with a resounding “OK.”

Evaluating Ellis as a coach is extremely difficult because she’s bad at the aspects of her job that we can see, but ostensibly elite at the things we couldn’t. When it comes to tactics, Ellis was poor. But her consistent success suggests that she was among the best in the world at the stuff that happens behind closed doors, and the USWNT appears to have benefitted greatly from having her as a coach.

The most consistent feature of Ellis’ tenure was baffling tactical decisions no other coach would make, followed by explanations of those decisions so absurd they felt like trolling. She played bizarre lineups well past the point when she said experimentation would end and earnest World Cup preparation would begin, deploying attacking winger Mallory Pugh in a two-woman center of midfield in March. Once the knockout stages of the World Cup rolled around, Ellis inexplicably benched NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan, arguably the best midfielder in the world, for no discernible reason. Ellis’ team played conservatively in the quarterfinals and semifinals, looking shaky against France and England teams with less talent.

But the USWNT won the World Cup anyway because it had best squad at the tournament by far. Its backups could start for any other team in the world. The next group of 23 Americans who didn’t make the USWNT roster would almost certainly be a knockout stage-quality team. No managerial job on the planet requires less tactical aptitude than the USWNT.

Does this sound mean? It probably sounds mean, and Ellis doesn’t deserve that. In her five years at the helm of the USWNT, she has never publicly said anything rude to or about anyone. That’s a very unique personality trait among high-level soccer coaches who, as a group of people, seem to enjoy being jerks and talking shit significantly more than the general population.

That personality trait probably saved her job in 2017. After the USWNT lost to Australia at the Tournament of Nations, American players went to then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to express their concerns with Ellis’ coaching style and ability. Gulati, Ellis, and the players got together, talked out their problems, and Gulati insisted that Ellis wouldn’t be fired. Since then, the USWNT has won 39 games, drawn five, and lost only once.

Ellis might not have much tactical acumen by top professional coaching standards, but someone who can turn around an attempted player coup into an .867 winning percentage clearly does not lack skill as a coach, no matter how talented her team is relative to its opponents. Finding the right balance between letting players speak their minds and keeping them on task in the midst of a lawsuit against their own soccer federation couldn’t have been easy either.

The soccer world is filled with genius tacticians who have no ability to navigate the politics and tribulations of management, and end up becoming trophy-less journeymen or scouts as a result. I’ve said that Ellis was a bad coach before, and it was an unfair claim. She’s a bad tactician, for sure, but she’s undeniably one hell of a people manager. If we had a mic on Ellis in meetings, in the locker room, and on the training pitch, we’d probably appreciate her a lot more.

Ellis’ people managing skills and tactical deficiencies were both evident throughout her career at UCLA, which is relevant to the future of the USWNT. In her 12 seasons with the Bruins, Ellis made the College Cup six times, but never won the title. She was a master recruiter, but she got outcoached in the hardest games. Three years after Ellis’ departure, Amanda Cromwell guided UCLA to its first national championship in women’s soccer, and the team’s best players were Ellis recruits.

We can’t draw a direct comparison to the USWNT, because they’re the reigning two-time world champions, but it’s possible that something similar could happen next. Ellis has taken the USWNT as far as she can. If the rest of the world ever did catch up to the United States in talent — which seems inevitable, even if it’s happening much more slowly than everyone anticipated — an Ellis-coached team would probably struggle. The USWNT needs a better tactician to progress, but whoever that person ends up being will inherit a program that has an excellent foundation that was laid by Ellis. All the really hard stuff — culture building, morale, confidence — is currently taken care of thanks to Ellis. The new coach just has to make the right gameday decisions.

Ellis is not a world-class gameday coach, and the USWNT might improve after her departure, but she left the program in a much better place than she found it. That, more than her World Cup wins or her mistakes, should be how she’s remembered.