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San Diego Wave boss Jill Ellis gets kicks away from soccer

Jill Ellis wasn’t kidding.

In June, when she helped found a San Diego soccer club, Ellis said she’d leave the soccer to others while she built up the business teams. Her soccer staff would find the players and coach them. That’s why she hired them.

Because Ellis was a soccer star in her own right — she coached the U.S. team that won the past two women’s World Cups and led UCLA to eight semifinals in the NCAA tournaments — you wondered how it would work out.

If anything, Ellis said recently, her forecast overstated her soccer activities to date.

“Minimal — at this point,” Ellis said of her soccer involvement with San Diego Wave FC, which will play its third NWSL Challenge Cup preseason match at 1 p.m. Saturday at University of San Diego. “I’ve probably been to two or three trainings.”

Merchandising, sponsorships, ticket sales, community relations, facility deals — that’s where Ellis, the team’s president, has directed most of her energy. “Hours and hours, I’m on calls,” she said.

And, where has the time gone? Ellis and her first hire, General Manager Molly Downtain, her former top assistant with the national team, recently marveled at how much ground has been covered. The Wave’s first home match, which attracted a capacity crowd of 6,000 last Saturday, afforded perspective.

San Diego Wave players line up before game against the Portland Thorns last Saturday at Torero Stadium.

San Diego Wave players line up before game against the Portland Thorns last Saturday at Torero Stadium.

(Denis Poroy)

“We kind of looked at each other,” said Ellis. “Eight months ago, we didn’t have any players. We didn’t have a place to play. We didn’t have colors. We didn’t have fans. And, to see it in such a short time, I had to kind of pinch myself.

“It’s pretty remarkable what we’ve tried to do in such a short time,” she said. “But, it doesn’t happen without being in a phenomenal city with people that have really embraced us. I’m proud, and I’m excited at being a part of this city and this club.”

As business operations mature, she’ll have more time to visit her soccer team’s practices near Del Mar Fairgrounds. Her soccer expertise would seem a useful resource, though there’s no doubt coach Casey Stoney, an English compatriot, is in charge of the team.

Ellis was unbeaten in World Cup play, going 13-0-1 (certainly her relationships with national team stars Alex Morgan and Abby Dahlkemper helped put them on the Wave roster). Her team had unbeaten streaks of 21, 24, 26 and 28 games. At UCLA, she was 229-45-14.

Building the Wave has stretched Ellis in ways that coaching a soccer team did not. With 45 hires already made (some of them soccer personnel), she’s taken a crash course in several business areas where she admittedly lacked expertise.

“What’s really been helpful has been hiring local people,” she said, mentioning Laura Wolf Stein, a longtime San Diego executive who was with Challenged Athletes Foundation before joining the Wave as vice president of marketing and communications. “It has made this integration happen faster. … I feel good about the fact we’ve actually brought a business into San Diego. It’s part for the fans, but we also want to stimulate and connect at every level.”

The treadmill that’s humming underneath Ellis, 55, is especially fast given Angel City of Los Angeles, Saturday’s opponent, launched a year earlier than the Wave, though both clubs are headed to their first National Women’s Soccer League season.

As if wasn’t enough to cram what normally is a two-year build-up into 10 months, Ellis had to relocate from Miami to San Diego — but not before persuading her daughter, a high school junior, to come with her.

The drive from Miami to San Diego was a memorable one.

“Three dogs across the country. Two cats. It was like Noah’s Ark, man,” said Ellis.

She added: “It’s been great. I have no regrets. I’m super happy in what we’re doing and how it’s building.”

Ellis’ final match with the national team was in October 2019. She said it took awhile to find the right next challenge that fully engaged her competitive nature. Her status as the only coach to win two women’s World Cups didn’t immunize her from pessimistic appraisals about the challenge she took on.

“There were some folks who were kind of like, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if you can pull it off in such a short time,’ ’’ she said.

“Yeah, OK,” Ellis answered. “Watch and see. We’re going for it.”

The Wave’s regular season begins May 1 at Houston, followed by the home opener May 7 against NY/NJ Gotham.