Jill Ellis, who is stepping down as head coach of the U.S. women's national team after winning the World Cup three weeks ago, has some advice for whoever replaces her: Coach how you think is best, but realize there will be consequences.
“It's one of these most challenging jobs in terms of expectations, and rightly so with the program’s history, but there is very little margin for error,” Ellis said. “You have to listen to the people that are important to listen to and tune everything else out and do your thing.
“Ultimately, it's your hand on the rudder and you have to make the decisions at the end of the day. Even if they're poor decisions, you've got to own everything about this job.”
Ellis' advice sounds perhaps a bit more like a warning than advice. But Ellis knows the pressures of the job. Just like the coaches that came before, her own players tried to get her fired, but Ellis still continued on and won back-to-back World Cups.
Now, U.S. Soccer has to replace Ellis with a coach who has a tough act to follow. The USWNT can't stay on top forever, but coaching the USWNT remains the top job in women's soccer.
U.S. Soccer said they won't select a replacement until they hire a new general manager to oversee the women's program, which should be announced “soon.” But in the meantime, here is a look at some candidates to replace Ellis.
During games, many fans probably have noticed a man with a blond bun in Ellis' ear constantly, and that same man was always the one who delivered instructions to the players from the sidelines during breaks. That was Ellis' assistant and right-hand man, Tony Gustavsson, who has played a part in some of the USWNT's biggest successes, including a gold-medal triumph at the 2012 Olympics, and both World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019.
Back in 2014, when U.S. Soccer hired Ellis as head coach to replace Tom Sermanni, the other finalist in the hiring process was Gustavsson, after he served as an assistant under previous U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Sources told Yahoo Sports at the time that Gustavsson was interested in staying in Europe, and he indeed was later named a Europe-based assistant coach and scout to Ellis, who got the top job.
Gustavsson has returned to Sweden for now, with sources telling Yahoo Sports that his next plans are not yet set. But it seems like the U.S. head coaching job should be his to turn down.
In addition to his work with the USWNT and his familiarity with the players, he took over as head coach for Tyresö FF in 2012 after, according to sources, U.S. Soccer didn't consider Gustavsson as a replacement for Sundhage because he lacked head coaching experience. With Tyresö, Gustavsson won a first-division (Damallsvenskan) title and reached a UEFA Women’s Champions League final.
Gustavsson seems to check all the boxes, and after Ellis' successful tenure, U.S. Soccer probably would prefer consistency over change.
Another longtime assistant of Ellis and someone deeply familiar with the USWNT player pool is Steven Swanson, who has juggled his national team duties with serving as head coach for the University of Virginia.
Like Gustavsson, Swanson played a key role in both the 2015 and 2019 World Cups, but Swanson’s experience extends to the youth levels. As coach of the Under-20 USWNT, he led the Americans to the final of the U-20 World Cup, the only coach to do so in the past five editions of the tournament.
The question is whether Swanson would even want the job. He will embark on his 20th season in charge of the Cavaliers this year and, while international and club soccer is often a revolving door of coaches, college jobs are far more secure and comfortable. Giving it up to coach the national team would be tantamount to accepting that he'll have to look for another job in the next year to five years again.
Fans might remember her as Erica Walsh, the assistant coach who served under Pia Sundhage when the USWNT won a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. But Dambach also has an extensive history with U.S. Soccer, previously coaching the U-17 team and serving as an assistant to U-20 team in 2014 and a decade earlier as assistant to the U-19 team.
Dambach is currently the head coach of Penn State, a position she's held since 2007, where she's had 12 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, including a national championship in 2015.
The reason to count her out is the same as with Swanson: Why leave a stable job at a university for the pressure and risk of coaching the No. 1 team in the world?
She's been one of the top coaches in the National Women's Soccer League, winning two regular season Shields with the Seattle Reign in 2014 and 2015 to go along with NWSL Coach of the Year awards both seasons and spots on the FIFA World Coach of the Year shortlist. Before that, she coached Arsenal and led the team to three consecutive league titles, being named coach of the year in 2012.
Harvey is already familiar to the U.S. Soccer brass, as she was personally invited by Ellis to work with the USWNT's Under-23 team in 2017. Previously, Harvey has worked as an assistant coach for England's teams at various younger levels.
If there's a knock on Harvey, it's that she hasn't shown in the NWSL that her strength is developing young talent – rather, she’s more often demonstrated her shrewdness as the general manager who can creatively acquire players in trades. While the U.S. has no shortage of talent, Ellis went out of her way to bring in young, unproven players in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, despite concerns from her own locker room, and it paid off.
As head coach of the Portland Thorns, Parsons has one NWSL Shield and one NWSL championship under his belt, and he's never failed to make playoffs. Before that, he took over a struggling Washington Spirit team and guided them from the bottom of the league to back-to-back playoff appearances, despite a roster that lacked the quality and star power of the Thorns he coaches now.
The concern with Parsons is that the international game is a significant step up from the club game, and Parsons doesn't have experience at that level. That's a glaring gap in his résumé, despite making the shortlist for FIFA Coach of the Year in 2018.
This seems highly unlikely given the fact he was fired by Australia right before the World Cup. But the Australian federation has said so little about his firing and the reasons are so vague that it may not be impossible.
Despite qualifying for the World Cup and Australia looking like one of the favorites heading into the tournament, Stajcic was let go in January for reasons still unclear – the FFA only said that they had concerns about the team culture after players took an anonymous survey. The FFA was later forced to apologize to Stajcic as part of a court settlement.
From a soccer standpoint, Stajcic had seemed to steer the Matildas in a positive direction, and he had coached the team since 2014. He's since taken a head coaching job in Australia's top-flight men's league.
But the U.S. women's national team, which is on strong footing, probably isn't the right landing place for Stajcic to resuscitate his career in women's soccer.
This seems unlikely because if Neid still wanted to coach then she'd still be at the helm of Germany. But maybe – just maybe – her time away from the technical box has made the heart grow fonder. Neid led the Germans to a Women's World Cup crown in 2007, and then before her pre-announced retirement, she led Germany to a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics.
Neid, a three-time FIFA World Coach of the Year and the German federation's current head of scouting, is only 55 years old and if she were to come out of coaching retirement, why not to coach the best team in the world? This idea may be more fun than realistic, but stranger things have happened in the world of soccer.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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