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Farewell, Jill Ellis, and thank you

The winningest coach in U.S. Soccer history has left the pitch for the last time. Jill Ellis leaves the USWNT with a record to be envied, one which may never be duplicated.

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The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019 - Photo Booth
The Best FIFA Women’s Coach 2019 award winner Jill Ellis of the United States poses for a portrait in the photo booth prior to The Best FIFA Football Awards 2019 at Excelsior Hotel Gallia on September 23, 2019 in Milan, Italy.
Photo by Michael Regan - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

The Jill Ellis era ended Sunday in Chicago, as the U.S. Women’s National Team and South Korea played to a 1-1 draw. But the tributes to U.S. soccer’s winningest coach didn’t wait for the finish.

Ellis, winner of the FIFA award for Best Women’s Coach for 2019, told reporters she got choked-up high-fiving players on her way to the field.

Tears flowed as Ellis received a jersey with the number 132, the number of games she coached with the USWNT. The scoreboard showed a video tribute and her mom, dad, wife Betsy Stephenson, their daughter and her friends joined her on the field.

The team’s Twitter account even changed its handle to #ThankYouJill for the weekend.

Some fans expressed anger at ESPN on Twitter for not carrying the post-game festivities. What they missed was Ellis’s heartfelt reflections on this incredible milestone.

“I’m privileged to have done this job for so long and played so many games,” Ellis said at the post-game news conference, as she sat beside her daughter, Lily. “It’s just been an honor. Numbers and all that kind of fade away. It becomes about the players and staff and the people and just the memories. I’ve got a trunk full of memories for this for sure. It’s been fantastic.”

“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Ellis added. “It’s been the most rewarding job, the hardest job I’ve ever had and the job that has helped me grow. It’s not regret. It’s not relief. It’s honestly a big smile on my face saying I’ve enjoyed this and I’m ready for what’s next.”

Then members of her team summed up their adoration in a few words, beginning with the USWNT’s most famous player, Megan Rapinoe.

“For Jill, being the leader of our team and all that she’s led us through, all the wins, all the ups and downs, all of the different lineups and different formations, the doubts and everything — to be able to actually accomplish our goal is something really special,” Megan Rapinoe said. “It’s something that you can’t really put into words.”

“Obviously this is her last game, but this is also our last game as a group. For us, this is a chance to celebrate and be together one last time and obviously give Jill the send-off that she deserves,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher said. “Not just as 23 players, but with this staff and this group. Nobody really knows what’s coming next after the Victory Tour so there’s no more guarantees of anything.”

What comes next is the USWNT’s next match, next month. They’ll face Sweden on Nov. 7, but that will be with a new coach and a team that is preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, less than 10 months away.

As Stephanie Yang of Stars and Stripes FC wrote, Ellis brought home two World Cups in her time as head coach, “but also dropped a real brick during the 2016 Olympics. She was prone to head-scratching player decisions (whither Lindsey Horan in France?) but also never seemed to lose the locker room, at least not the way her predecessor Tom Sermanni did. She lost while using some sub-optimal formations, but she was also willing to try and give the team more tools to use than the 4-4-2. Will she be remembered as a two-time World Cup winner, or someone who succeeded in spite of herself, given the absurd amount of talent she had to work with? Will she move on to a job where she might not have the same safety net of talent to cover up tactical errors? Will she find success to show her USWNT career wasn’t a fluke? Can you call two consecutive World Cup wins a fluke, or is it fair to take into account things like injuries forcing her hand on roster decisions and lucky calls that went in the U.S.’s favor?”

Of course, the loss in the Rio Games spurred Ellis to reimagine the squad into what many called the best in the history of the sport. As Thrace wrote, the USWNT shutout the Netherlands, 2-0, to win the 2019 World Cup Final in Lyon, France, a back-to-back victory for the history books.

Prior to her work as the USWNT head coach, Ellis dedicated the last two decades of her life to girls and women’s soccer. She was the Development Director for U.S. Soccer, working with the Youth National Teams, and also served as assistant coach for the senior National Team, the head coach for the U.S. U-20 and U-21 WNTs, a scout for the WNT and the head coach for the U.S. U-16 GNT.

As Outsports reported in July, Ellis led the USWNT to eight tournament championships beginning in May 2014: the 2015 Algarve Cup, the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, the 2016 SheBelieves Cup, the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, the 2018 Tournament of Nations, the 2018 Concacaf Women’s Championship and the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As head coach, both interim and officially, U.S. Soccer noted Ellis called up 79 players to take part in at least one training camp, and of those 79 players, 56 earned at least one cap. Ellis also gave 28 players their first caps.

But as ESPN’s Graham Hays wrote, her real legacy isn’t in the numbers, but what she did for women athletes in her sport, and beyond.

“She should also be recognized for her efforts to ensure that her players had the opportunity to express themselves with the loudest possible megaphone,” Hays wrote.

”They’re showcasing or shining a light on these issues, whether it be LGBTQ, whether it be equal pay, whether it be sexual harassment,” Ellis said of her team. “The culture and the climate now, I don’t want to say is focused on female issues, but it’s definitely more aware. The whole Time’s Up movement made people way more aware of what people had to deal with. And now you have this high-profile female team. There are things out there this team can relate to.”

Below, a retrospective with Jill Ellis herself from U.S. Soccer, but first: see how Ellis’s mom interrupted her final news conference with an ill-timed phone call.