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Captain of the ship or along for the ride? How much credit does Ellis deserve for the USWNT’s dominance?

23:00 GMT+3 11/07/2019
Jill Ellis USWNT 2019
The manager has led her side to back-to-back World Cups, but critics charge that her team wins due to their superior talent more than anything else

Jill Ellis may never be completely free of her critics, but the U.S. women’s national manager coach now has quite the riposte for them.

Two. 

That’s the number of World Cup titles Ellis has won, making her only the second manager to ever achieve the feat. Ellis joins former Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo in the exclusive club, with Pozzo having pulled off the feat all the way back in 1934 and 1938. 

Despite her achievement, there will continue to be debate as to whether the USWNT won the 2015 and 2019 World Cups in spite of or because of Ellis, or perhaps simply with the manager along for the ride. 

This was a tournament that started with former USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo saying Ellis "cracks under pressure" but ended with the manager on top yet again, though Ellis did not seem concerned with the title's effect on her legacy.

“I can truly say this, I don’t care and I’ve never really read what people thought,” Ellis said after her team defeated the Netherlands 2-0 on Sunday in Lyon in the final.  

While Ellis may not read this, or any other article discussing her legacy, it’s worth considering how much credit she deserves for overseeing this era of USWNT dominance. 

Though the U.S. has dominated the last two World Cups, winning 13 games, drawing one and losing zero, the most recent Olympics was a different story. 

The U.S. fell to Sweden in the quarterfinals in Rio in 2016, marking the team's worst finish ever in a major tournament. That defeat led to a period of soul-searching and experimentation that led to dozens of new players being brought in, several formations tried out, and some ugly losses. 

“I knew that after 2016 we had to deconstruct this and reconstruct it,” Ellis said. “That was the plan that I shared with my bosses and they bought into it.”

“It wasn’t easy,” defender Kelley O’Hara said of that transition phase. “It was hectic and stressful and difficult and full of obstacles and a lot of uncertainty for a lot of people, but it was necessary and I respect [Ellis] a lot for doing that.”

Eventually, Ellis found a group of players that meshed well and settled on the 4-3-3 formation that the U.S. used through the 2019 World Cup. Though the formation was set, Ellis continued to shuffle her lineup in France with varying degrees of success.

Perhaps the most controversial move Ellis made at the World Cup was her decision to not start Lindsey Horan, unquestionably one of the world’s best midfielders, in three of the team’s four knockout games. 

Evaluating that move’s effectiveness is difficult to do, simply because Ellis used other top-tier players, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis, in Horan’s stead. The USWNT is the world’s deepest team and at times it felt like Ellis simply could not lose no matter what she decided.

Against France in the quarterfinal, though, it was clear the U.S. missed Horan. With the USWNT shorn of a player so adept in possession, France controlled large portions of the game and the USWNT arguably should have won more comfortably than it did in a 2-1 nail-biter. 

Ellis also dropped the U.S. out of their 4-3-3 formation in the latter stages against France and in the semifinal against England, moving Julie Ertz back to defense in a 5-4-1 setup.

Again, like her decision to bench Horan, that move from Ellis still saw the U.S. come out on top, but it's unclear if it was really necessary and could have prevented the team from winning more comfortably. 

Other personnel decisions Ellis made before the World Cup paid off in more obvious ways. 

Alyssa Naeher has looked shaky at times in her USWNT career, but Ellis’s decision to hand her the keys at goalkeeper looked like a wise one after Naeher was solid through the USWNT’s final three games, including a potentially tournament-saving penalty stop late against England.

Ellis's decision to move attacker Crystal Dunn to left back hasn't always worked out but, despite some hiccups that came from playing out of position, Dunn recovered to help shut down vaunted right-sided attackers against France, England and the Netherlands.

“Whether it’s bombing forward, whether it’s defending some of the best attacking players in the world, she makes great decisions,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said of Dunn. 

“You can put her anywhere but as a left back she’s world class.”

Outside of her tactical and personnel decisions, though, perhaps where Ellis deserves the most credit is her ability to create a sense of team unity and cohesiveness that saw the USWNT successfully ignore a multitude of off-field controversies during the tournament. 

“We love each other,” Sauerbrunn said. “These last few years have been really tough so I think we kind of rode this journey and this roller coaster together, and so to get to this moment is just a testament to the team.”

After the U.S. defeated the Netherlands, Ellis was asked about her future with the team. Her contract is set to expire at the end of July and no announcement on her future has been made.

Ellis batted the question away, saying, “I can’t even think about that right now. Right now it’s about enjoying this moment.”

Ellis could choose to go out on top, or take the chance to redeem herself for 2016 at next summer’s Olympics. Whatever Ellis chooses, the chance to truly measure her value to the team may not come until someone else is in charge.