The other day on Facebook my friend and Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan, Natty, asked me about the backgrounds of coaches in this year’s Women’s World Cup. I had no idea! So, I decided to do some research. Over the next few days, as the teams all play their second games in the Group Stage, we’ll be profiling their coaches. We’ve covered Group A, Group B, and Group C so far, here’s Group D.
Australia – Alen Stajcic
The 41 year-old Alen Stajcic already had 12 years of experience coaching women’s professional soccer when he was offered the job of coaching Australia’s national team in 2014. The child of Yugoslavian immigrants, Stajcic grew up watching soccer with his father and playing on youth teams. He made it to the semi-pro level before having his playing career ended by a knee injury. In addition to growing women’s soccer, Stajcic believes that he and men’s national team coach Ange Postecoglou are responsible for expanding and improving soccer as a whole in Australia. Unlike most coaches, who believe that players thrive on consistency and knowing their roles, Stajcic doesn’t mind more than a bit of uncertainty. In the past 26 matches, he’s used 26 different starting lineups. I’m usually a fan of unorthodox behavior, but that seems too weird even for me.
Nigeria – Edwin Okon
The Nigerian Football Federation seems to be a complete mess. In 2012, they gave control of the women’s team to long-time Nigerian player and coach, Kadiri Ikhana. Later that year, he resigned in some combination of disgrace and exasperation. The job of coaching the women’s team was given to Edwin Okon on an explicitly temporary basis while they looked for a “substantive coach.” Three years later, he’s still coaching the team but it’s unclear whether that’s because he turned out to be “substantive” or whether the federation simply forgot to do anything about it. Okon is either running a wonderfully long con-game against the world or he’s a little bit off his rocker. It’s one thing to repeatedly claim that God is on your side but it’s another thing to claim (and have the claim backed up by your players) that you “know nothing” about your upcoming World Cup opponents. Seriously — read Jeff Kassouf’s article in Equalizer Soccer entitled, “Nigeria Insist They Know Nothing About Sweden.”
Sweden – Pia Sundhage
Pia Sundhage has been involved with women’s soccer on an international scale since 1975 when she made her international debut, playing for her native Swedish national team as a 15 year-old. She had a 21 year career as a professional and international player and even began coaching before she was done playing. She spent three years in the early 1990s as a player/manager for the Swedish club team Hammarby. Once her playing career was finally over, she took a series of assistant coaching jobs in women’s soccer that eventually led her to the United States and the (then) brand new Women’s United Soccer Association. She got her break (pun warning) when she was offered the job as head coach of the Boston Breakers where she won the league title in 2003. After the league folded, she went back to Sweden but took a few of her favorite players with her, including then U.S. National team captain Kristine Lilly. That eventually led to her being asked to coach the U.S. women’s national team, a job which she held from 2008 to 2012. As the U.S. coach, Sundhage opened up the field for her players, giving them freedom and flexibility to experiment with. Many of the current U.S. players still credit her with the development of their games. She left the U.S. team in 2012 to return to Sweden and coach their national team. Sundhage is a mercurial figure, almost a soccer savant, but a friendly one. If you want to learn more about her, read Sam Borden’s excellent profile of her in the New York Times.
United States – Jill Ellis
Coaching is in Jill Ellis‘ blood. Her father, John, was a soccer ambassador for the British government and later head coach of the women’s national team for Trinidad & Tobago. Ellis, who was born in England and moved to the United States with her family at age 15, was a great striker for her college team, William & Mary, but never played professionally or internationally. Instead, she followed her father’s footsteps into coaching. The year after graduating from college, she began to travel from college assistant coaching job to college assistant coaching job until she got a shot as head coach of a brand new soccer program at University of Illinois in 1997. Only two years later, she moved again, this time to UCLA. Ellis quickly transformed UCLA into a soccer power-house, making the Final Four eight of twelve years she coached there. During her time at UCLA, she also worked with the U.S. national team, as an assistant coach of the senior team and head coach of the under-20 and under-21 teams. She left UCLA in 2010 and has worked solely with team USA since then, as an assistant under Pia Sundhage and during the brief tenure of Tom Sermanni. In May of last year, after firing Sermanni, the U.S. soccer powers that be finally turned to Ellis on a full-time basis (she had served as interim head coach twice) and offered her the job of head coach.
Ellis is a true hire from within and as is the case with many internal promotions, she receives criticism for not being a big enough figure. It’s only human nature, I suppose, to find it easier to buy into a dramatic outside hire than a simple promotion, and Ellis’ quiet disposition doesn’t do her any favors. She has a reputation for not being able to win on the biggest stage. Despite going to eight Final Fours at UCLA, she never won a National Championship, nor was she able to lead either of the junior U.S. teams to junior World Cup championships. Her tactics have also come into question, whether it’s her choice to bring a relatively older team to the World Cup or her decision to play Carli Lloyd out wide, or her choice to go with four offensive minded midfielders. It’s all part of the job for the head coach of the U.S. team but Ellis seems to get it worse than other managers have. She’s got as much at stake during this World Cup as anyone. Win, and it’s all good. Lose, and a big portion of the blame will be heaped on her.