The sun shined brightly on Jill Ellis and her team Sunday as they stood at midfield looking up at the video board, listening intently as the words “Thank you, Jill” echoed through Soldier Field.
For the last time, the U.S. women’s national team was hers, and she embraced the heaviness of that pregame moment with a steady smile, as if she already had processed this goodbye in private moments countless times before.
Beneath that smile were the emotions that only her staff and players could fully understand.
So as the team took the field and shook Ellis’ hand, she let those emotions out with the players she led through this historic journey.
“I got a little choked up,” Ellis said, fighting back tears. “They’re a good group.”
“I’ve known Jill since 2003 with the under-21 days,” Carli Lloyd said. “She’s been a part of the 2008 Olympic team. She’s just kind of been through this whole process with a lot of us. It’s going to be very emotional.”
In five-plus years, Ellis led the team to eight tournament victories, including back-to-back World Cup titles, a first for a USWNT coach.
The 1-1 tie against South Korea wasn’t exactly the storybook ending the team wanted to give Ellis. It didn’t really matter, though. Ellis already had claimed another piece of USWNT history when she led her team to its 17th consecutive victory last week.
That marked her 106th win as the USWNT coach, passing Tony DiCicco for most victories. She’s 106-7-19 overall.
“I wanted 107,” Ellis said, laughing. “No, I’m just kidding. It never honestly was about a number. I’m just privileged to have done this job for so long, played so many games. It’s just been an honor. Numbers and all of that kind of fade away. It becomes about the players and the staff and the people.”
Ellis said her legacy is for others to determine, but everyone on the outside looking in can see that it’s unique and that this group will never look the same.
This summer, she led the team to its fourth World Cup title, making the U.S. the only nation with four. At the same time, the team unwaveringly fought for equal pay and spread the message of equality.
She might not know what her legacy will be just yet, but it’s one women’s sports in this country needed.
“You’re in it in that grind every day,” Megan Rapinoe said. “Obviously, with 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 actually be able to accomplish our goal is something that’s really special.”