Jill Ellis never left soccer, she just shifted focus.
The two-time World Cup-winning coach with the U.S. national team has turned her attention to making sure other women can pursue coaching careers in a sport where female coaches are rare.
After Ellis stepped down as coach of the national team last year, U.S. soccer announced it would endow an annual scholarship in her name to support female candidates pursuing elite coaching licenses.
On Tuesday, U.S. Soccer also announced the SheChampions Mentorship Program, designed to support women in the two top licensing courses.
Ellis said the idea is to create a community.
“As I look back on my journey, every female coach has gone it alone, so to speak. There’s been very few opportunities to be in a room, or be on a coaching license course, with other women,” Ellis said. “So I think that the idea of this mentoring program is to create a network that naturally exists for guys -- because there’s a lot more of them. It’s trying to now provide not just mentorship, but create opportunities.”
Ellis is among those who will mentor the women in the program. Others include longtime North Carolina and former national team coach Anson Dorrance and Laura Harvey, former National Women's Soccer League coach and current youth national team coach.
The idea is to double the number of professional female coaches at the elite level in the United States. Currently, there are only about 50 women with “A” and “Pro” level licenses.
The U.S. national team is an outlier internationally when it comes to female coaches, with three high-profile women serving in the role since the team was founded in the mid-1980s: April Heinrichs, Pia Sundhage and Ellis.
At last year's World Cup in France, just nine of the 24 teams had a female coach. Two women, Ellis and Dutch national team coach Sarina Wiegman, faced off in the final.
FIFA, soccer's international governing body, also has a mentorship program designed to encourage women in elite coaching careers as part of the organization's global strategy for women's football launched in 2018. Ellis, among 17 coaches involved in the program, has been mentoring Monica Vergara, Mexico's under-20 women's national team coach.
“That really left a mark on me, that suddenly that ability to care for somebody else and help them on their journey, was powerful. So that’s when this whole mentoring program came about," Ellis said. "I believe that this is going to resonate tenfold in terms of just the impact it can have.”
It is undeniably difficult for a woman to reach coaching's elite ranks. When Ellis completed the second U.S. Soccer Pro licensing course in 2017, she was the lone woman among 17 graduates. She remains the only woman to earn the license in the United States.
In the National Women's Soccer League, there is only one female head coach, Sky Blue's Freya Coombe, although Amy LePeilbet is serving as interim head coach of the Utah Royals. U.S. Soccer began offering C license courses to NWSL players at no cost in 2018 as a way of promoting women within the league.
At the college level, only 26.2% of all Division I women's soccer teams were coached by women in 2018, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport. That number dropped from nearly 40% in the late 1990's.
Ellis said she started thinking about the issue after U.S. Soccer announced the scholarship last fall.
“As a little bit of time went past, I thought, what are we actually doing with this?" she said. “And I sat down with the group up there and I said, 'I really want to make a difference.' Because every speaking gig I ever talked to of coaches, they’re like, ‘Well, where are all the female coaches? And why are the numbers declining?’”
Ellis stepped down as coach of the national team in July 2019, just over three weeks after she led the United States to a second consecutive World Cup title. Vlatko Andonovski was appointed the team's new coach last October.
Named to the job in 2014, Ellis led the team to eight overall tournament titles. Over the course of her tenure, the United States lost just seven matches.
Since she stepped down as coach, Ellis has been enjoying time with her family while also riding out the coronavirus pandemic. She insists she's not retired — she's even entertained a few coaching opportunities that have come her way.
“I’m not saying I’m never going to end up back on the sideline,” she said, "but right now, this has my passion and my attention.”