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At Soldier Field, U.S. Women’s Soccer Coach Says Goodbye

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Jill Ellis

United States head coach Jill Ellis waves to the crowd as she leaves the field after an international friendly soccer match between the United States and South Korea, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Chicago.

Kamil Krzaczynski

The U.S. women’s national soccer team concluded its World Cup victory tour in Chicago on Sunday, ending the tenure of the team’s record-setting head coach.

Coach Jill Ellis’ last game ended in a 1-1 draw with the South Korean team. South Korea scored first, but the Americans answered minutes later with a header by veteran player Carli Lloyd.

“Would’ve been nice to send Jill out with another win,” Lloyd said after the game.

But just days earlier, Ellis had logged her 106th win as head coach, the most for a single coach in the history of the women’s team. She led the group in back-to-back World Cup victories, as well as an early loss in the 2016 Olympic Games. Still, in a postgame press conference Sunday, Ellis said her work was never about the stats.

“Numbers and all that kind of fade away,” Ellis said. “It becomes about the players and the staff and the people and just the memories.”

The crowd at Soldier Field gave Ellis a standing ovation during a pregame ceremony. A giant sign that read “THANKS JILL: A REAL AMERICAN HERO” took several rows of fans to hold up.

“It’s a story written, and it’s a chapter closed, and it’s on to other things,” Ellis said. “But it’s been an unbelievable journey.”

Ellis began to tear up while describing some of her final interactions with the team.

“I think when I was high-fiving the players on the way out to the field, I got a little choked up,” said Ellis. “Yeah, they’re a good group.”

Outside the stadium, fan Madeline Dunkle said she sees Ellis as an inspirational figure for women. “I think she is such a badass,” said Dunkle.

“She’s a really good role model to a lot of women’s soccer players, female athletes and just women in general.”

Ellis, 53, was formally named head coach in 2014 after coaching several games on an interim basis. Before that, she served as a development director for the U.S. Soccer Federation and coached at UCLA for more than a decade. Ellis hasn’t announced her next steps, but U.S. Soccer said she’ll continue to work with the federation as an ambassador.

Four players from the Red Stars, Chicago’s professional women’s soccer club, got the start in Sunday’s game: midfielder Julie Ertz, defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Short, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. A fifth Red Star, Morgan Brian, entered as a substitute in the second half.

Naeher said she liked playing in front of a home crowd of more than 33,000 people.

“I love Chicago, my home away from home,” she said. “To be here in Chicago, and finish this victory tour, is real special to me.”

Naeher hopes the buzz continues for the Red Stars’ National Women’s Soccer League playoff match on Oct. 20 in southwest suburban Bridgeview.

“These players are in your backyard every single weekend,” said Naeher. “Hopefully we have another great crowd for that playoff game.”

Sunday’s friendly match at Soldier Field was played steps away from the U.S. Soccer headquarters. In July, activists delivered a petition with around 200,000 signatures to the federation, demanding equal pay for the women’s team compared with their male counterparts. For Sunday’s game, the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association issued a call for fans to wear white in support of gender equality, and to join in “equal pay” chants.

“It’s something that we should see across the board, not just in sports,” said fan Diane Woodring, before the game. “So bringing the attention to that is phenomenal.”

Lauren Frost covers news for WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur.

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