- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) - Jill Ellis was chatting with some of her U.S. women’s national team players this week when one of them mentioned that it was about time they played some games that mattered.

They had endured weeks of training camps, and it seemed to them they went on forever. And that struck Ellis as kind of funny, because everything has flown by for her.

Since taking over the U.S team on a full-time basis in May, after two stints as interim coach, Ellis has been consumed by training camps and preparation. It all has built to this, the first round of World Cup qualifying beginning Wednesday night against Trinidad and Tobago.

“We’re certainly focused,” said Ellis, bundled up against a stiff breeze Tuesday during a morning training session in Kansas City. “I think we’re all ready for that and ready to get out on the field, and we’re genuinely excited to showcase what we can do.”

Maybe nobody is as excited as Ellis, who served as an assistant coach under Pia Sundhage and helped the Americans to win gold at the 2008 Olympics.

She joined the U.S. program after a successful college coaching career at Illinois and UCLA, where she led the Bruins to seven consecutive Final Fours. And when Sundhage stepped down to lead Sweden’s national team in 2012, Ellis took over on an interim basis.

Tom Sermanni later got the full-time job, but he was dismissed in April. Ellis jumped back into the head coaching role, reverting to the style that Sundhage embraced during her successful run while adding a couple of her own twists along the way.

So far, everything has been going according to plan.

Ellis is 6-0-3 since officially starting in the top job, and 10-0-3 when her interim stints are factored into her record. That includes 8-0 and 4-0 romps over Mexico in the lead-up to qualifying, the only team that figured to present the U.S. any sort of challenge.

“We’ve talked about it being a journey. We know our destination,” Ellis said, “and what I’ve tried to convince them now is it’s the steps in between. It’s the path that’s the most important thing. We all want to be on the gold-medal stand at the end. For me, it’s going to be about our preparation to hit that big stage at our peak performance.”

Beginning with Trinidad and Tobago, the American team will play three games in six days spanning three cities. Guatemala awaits Friday in Chicago, followed by Haiti on Monday night in Washington, D.C. The semifinals of the regional qualifying tournament are in Philadelphia on Oct. 24, with the championship match two days later.

The U.S. will be heavily favored to advance. Its biggest rival in the CONCACAF region is Canada, which doesn’t have to qualify because it will host next year’s World Cup.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t much at stake. Ellis will be trying out several lineups and various combinations as she tries to perfect her lineup for next year’s tournament, a daunting task considering the talent and depth that she has at her disposal.

“I think what people will end up seeing from now until the end of this tournament is we have, no joke, two starting teams in our roster,” forward Abby Wambach said, “and both teams would probably vie for winning a world championship. And I think unfortunately for Jill and our coaching staff, it makes it difficult for them to make decisions.”

Ellis was already criticized for leaving talented young defender Julie Johnston off her initial roster. But a knee injury to Crystal Dunn created space for Johnston on Tuesday.

The roster remains loaded with veterans, including 14 players who participated in the qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics. Eleven players have World Cup qualifying experience, and one - Christie Rampone - played on the 1999 team that won the World Cup.

“We’re ready for these games to start,” Rampone said, “and see how we’re evolving with our new formation and how Jill is handling training sessions.”

Still, nobody seems more ready for the games to start than Ellis.

“I’m still in that phase where I kind of pinch myself sometimes,” she said. “It’s kind of still a dream come true, to get to work with these players. I’m very open to some of our youth coaches to come in and they’ll see the level and go, ‘Whoa!’ And I get to see that every day. It’s great. It’s been really good these first few months.”

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