USWNT’s Jill Ellis celebrates World Cup, looks to Olympics

U.S. women's soccer coach Jill Ellis throws out the first pitch before a Miami Marlins-Washington Nationals game.

U.S. women’s soccer coach Jill Ellis throws out the first pitch before a Miami Marlins-Washington Nationals game.

MIAMI — Moments after Jill Ellis threw a perfect first pitch to Billy the Marlin prior to Saturday night’s Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals game, a middle-aged man congratulated her.

As Ellis, her partner and their daughter walked through the tunnel, a woman asked for a selfie. She quickly obliged. Others stood to cheer and shout her name.

Two months after the U.S. women’s soccer team captured the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Vancouver, moments like these still prove to be surreal for the coach and development director of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

“I would have to say everything that has happened has been unreal,” Ellis said. “The ticker tape parade was ridiculously special. Just people’s genuine support and genuine response of the team and how we did has been amazing not just for me but for all the players.”

Ellis, who had never attended a Major League Baseball game until Saturday, has lived in Palmetto Bay for just over a year after spending the previous 15 in Los Angeles. Upon an invitation from the Marlins, she found time in her busy schedule to enjoy a baseball game with the family.

The 49-year-old will fly to Chicago on Sunday to evaluate players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semifinal match.

When the Victory Tour of exhibition games comes to a close, attention turns to February’s Olympic qualifiers. The Games begin next August in Rio de Janeiro.

With fewer spots on the roster — just 18 compared to 23 — they will be even more coveted and contested. She acknowledged there will be some changes over the next six months, especially with three players (Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny) already announcing their retirement.

“One of our strengths was our depth, sure,” Ellis said. “Having players even just went through it — even if they didn’t get a lot of minutes — to go through that environment and that pressure I think will serve them well.”

Leading up to the 5-2 final over Japan — a rematch of the 2011 contest in Germany — the Americans focused on getting out of the gate fast. They did so, scoring four goals in 16 minutes. It was a rare sight in soccer — no less a World Cup final, that Ellis had to pinch herself to believe it was true.

“(There was) a lot of preparation going into that game, which I think gave them confidence because we felt prepared,” Ellis said. “I usually don’t say too much on gameday. It was really a matter of, ‘A lot of people get to be a part of history, but very few people get to write it.’ They had an unbelievable opportunity that night, and that win they went out and were so focused. They dreamed about this since they were little girls. I knew they were ready.”

Because those little girls — now women — can have a cultural impact that lasts.

Record crowds have shown up for the Victory Tour from Pittsburgh to Chattanooga, Tennessee. They will face Brazil on Oct. 25 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

FOX averaged 25.4 million viewers, the most-viewed soccer game — men’s or women’s — in United States history. The previous record was 18.7 million for U.S.-Portugal in June 2014 during the men’s World Cup.

Los Angeles held a rally with an estimated crowd of 10,000 in attendance. New York City celebrated with its first downtown ticker tape parade for a women’s team — first for a team not based in the city in 30 years.

Various members have thrown out first pitches at baseball games. Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the final, competed in a field goal competition against Houston Texans defensive lineman Vince Wilfork on “Hard Knocks.”

“Going into the World Cup, there were two things in my heart that I wanted to have with a win,” Ellis said. “One was to send our senior players that didn’t have a World Cup in their resume. It was important for Abby Wambach and Hope (Solo) and all these players that have done so much but haven’t won a World Cup. And the other part of it certainly was giving the next generation somebody to cheer for and relate to since it had been ’99, and a lot of kids had been born since then. Those were the two major things for me.

“In 2011, Germany hosted and they had a springboard effect in terms of participation and following and media attention. And for this group — hopefully the young girls — they want to go out and kick the ball around and aspire to be heroes some day for the national team.”

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