UI soccer coach roots on predecessor

UI soccer coach roots on predecessor

CHAMPAIGN — Janet Rayfield spent the run up to the 2015 Women's World Cup as an advance scout for the U.S. Women's National Team.

The Illinois soccer coach was simply lending a helping hand to her predecessor Jill Ellis, who went from being the first Illini coach in program history to leading Team USA.

Rayfield didn't reprise her role this spring in advance of Tuesday's 2 p.m. World Cup opener for the U.S. against Thailand at Stade August Delaune in Reims, France.

That will allow her head to France starting with the quarterfinal round as a soccer fan.

"U.S. soccer, in a very good way, has really increased their full-time staff," Rayfield said. "Fortunately for Jill, she's got people who are full-time dedicated to those roles now. I get to go this summer and just be a fan. It's such a long tournament, but I have tickets to the quarterfinals in Paris. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that's a U.S.-France game."

Even if Rayfield wasn't involved in Team USA's prep for this year's World Cup and their defense of their 2015 title, she still has connections to the team beyond her relationship with Ellis. Pick a player on the American roster, and there's a good chance Rayfield coached her during her time with the various younger national teams.

Rayfield, who remains a technical adviser for the USWNT, was an assistant coach in 2012 during the U-20 World Cup and coached Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian, Julie (Johnston) Ertz and Samantha Mewis. She also coached Emily Sonnett with the U-23 team.

"I've really had the fortune of coaching the players that are on the full team now," Rayfield said about a group that also includes the likes of USWNT stalwart Tobin Heath as a teenager. "There's probably 10 or 11 that at some point in my coaching career I've had the opportunity to work with. It's fun to watch them play knowing them at the personal level and playing a small role in their development."

Team USA will continue Group play on June 16 against Chile and June 20 against Sweden. The Swedes knocked out the Americans in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics, but the U.S. has since gone 39-3-4 and returns several veterans from the 2015 World Cup winning team.

Carli Lloyd, who had a first-half hat trick in the 2015 title game against Japan, is back for her fourth World Cup. She's actually coming off the bench along with Christen Press and rising superstar Mallory Pugh, as the U.S. is loaded at forward with Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Heath all playing in their third World Cup.

Pugh is in her first World Cup. That's a status shared by 10 of her USWNT teammates, giving the squad a mix of veterans and what amounts to the start of the next iteration of the national team.

"The U.S. roster is maybe a few more veterans than I thought would be there this World Cup — names like Ali Krieger that maybe have seen their last World Cup — but I think Jill really wanted to have the experience there," Rayfield said. "You've also got some people that this will be their first World Cup, and that's exciting.

"The way the tournament plays out, you just have to have some people play a bigger role than maybe you expect them to play. Those players are going to give us the opportunity to last the length of this World Cup. Our depth is one of our strengths."

Ellis at the helm has to be considered a strength, too. The former Illinois coach is in her sixth year leading the national team. That ties her for second-longest tenure behind North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, who coached the team from 1986-1994 and to its first World Cup title in 1991.

Rayfield, who also played for Dorrance at North Carolina, said Ellis has been able to maintain the "American mentality" with an aggressive, risk-taking scheme that's coupled with "some tactical sophistication." The high-risk, high-reward approach has worked.

Ellis holding on as coach for six years when the average tenure of her predecessors not named Dorrance is less than four years speaks to her abilities as a coach, Rayfield said.

"The thing with the national team that's so hard is it's a grind in a really different way in terms of keeping things fresh and keeping your team moving in the right direction and having to make decisions about rosters," Rayfield said. "She's a wonderful coach, but she's also a great manager of people. It's her ability to manage her staff, manage her players and keep them invested in and bought in to the system she has.

"It's been flexible enough. Elite players want you to put them in a position to do what they do well. I think Jill has done a fantastic job of that."

This year's World Cup is the 20th anniversary of Team USA's victory on American soil in 1999. Rayfield was at the Rose Bowl for a match that drew 90,185 fans.

"I think we've made an impact as a spectator sport," Rayfield said. "Participation has grown on the boys' and girls' side, but I think in the last 20 years we have grown a fan base and a loyal fan base. With a fan base comes sponsorship. We've got a pro league.

"What's really exciting is what's happening around the world. You're starting to see women's soccer be a professional sport around the world. I think '99 was a mark in time where people said, 'Yes, this is actually possible.'"

Sections (3):Illini Sports, Sports, Soccer