US SoccerUS Soccer

Masar Takes the Road Less Traveled

There are several different paths to the full U.S. Women’s National Team.

The most common would go something like this: Get identified at a young age by youth national team coaches, come up through the ranks on the various U.S. youth national teams, get named to all the hot recruiting lists, earn All-American honors and the plaudits that come with it, get a full scholarship to college, and for sure play in one or more FIFA youth Women’s World Cups.

Then there is Ella Masar.

The lightly recruited forward out of the youth soccer backwater of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., found success in a non-traditional way. But like another underdog from Illinois who has been in the news lately, Masar’s journey has been an inspiring one, built on hard work and belief.

Take for instance what she did after completing her last final exam at the University of Illinois in June of 2008. Wait around to walk across the stage in cap and gown at her graduation? No time for that.

She got in her car and drove 11 hours by herself to Washington, D.C., perilously navigating the hills of Virginia in the dark on her way to play for the Washington Freedom in the W-League.

She figured that with three WPS teams coming to the region (New Jersey, Boston and of course the Freedom), her chances of being scouted to play in the new league were greater.

Those were the actions a player who has never taken anything for granted. No surprise considering her soccer background.

Although the first steps of Masar’s soccer journey were short ones, she did not have much of a choice. Her family didn’t have the means for her to play in the Olympic Development Program or to send her to Chicago to play for a powerhouse club in the suburbs of the Windy City. She pretty much flew under the women’s soccer radar. A virtual walk-on for her hometown Illini, she got just a 10 percent scholarship as a freshman.

Under the tutelage of Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield, her natural athletic ability and a huge heart helped her develop into a top player in the Big-10 Conference and earn a call-up to the U.S. Under-23 National Team. There, she quickly gained the respect of U.S. head coach Bill Irwin.

“Her work rate and intensity are top class, whether it’s in practice or games,” said Irwin. “There are not many strikers that will kick center backs. Usually it’s the other way around, but Ella will make things happen on the field and she can finish off chances.”

When she arrived in D.C., Masar had already made an impact with the U-23s, having helped the squad to the 2007 Nordic Cup championship the previous summer.

Knowing that the start of the WPS was more than 10 months away and that the W-League season would be over at the end of the summer, Masar realized she needed somewhere to hone her game in hopes of catching on in the WPS.

A confluence of events and contacts landed her in, of all places, Norway. Hey, if she drove from Champaign to Washington, D.C., chasing her soccer dreams, she could go a little further.

Marcia McDermott, the current general manager of the Chicago Red Stars, was the assistant coach at Illinois during Masar’s final two years of college soccer. McDermott had previously coached the WUSA’s Carolina Courage, which featured Norwegian legend Hege Riise, who happened to be coaching a team in Norway’s top league. McDermott told Riise about Masar, who was already headed to Sweden that July to play with the USA in the 2008 Nordic Cup.

Riise came to watch the USA’s first match against, appropriately, Norway. Masar scored in the 2-0 win, the first of her three goals in the tournament (she scored twice against Germany in the championship game).

Riise liked what she saw. Hello, contract.

“I knew I needed to keep playing in the fall,” said Masar, who scored 27 career goals at Illinois. “I couldn’t just sit there and watch Illinois play. I would have gone stir crazy. And I just couldn’t pass up a chance to play with Hege Riise.”

Masar played with Team Strommen outside of Oslo from late August through late November, getting in about 15 matches, and did well. The team was in fourth place when she arrived and finished the season in second, while also advancing to the Norwegian Cup Final, where her squad fell 3-1 to powerhouse Roa, a team stocked with Norwegian National Team players. Masar scored Strommen’s lone goal in front of more than 6,000 fans.

Despite the loss, Masar called the game “one of the coolest I’ve ever played in.”

“It was a lot of fun,” she said of her Scandinavian adventure, where she played with two Canadian internationals on Strommen. “For me as a player, I’ve always had my speed, but it was good to work on the technical aspects. I don’t think we did a drill in an area larger than a 20 by 30 yard square, so that helped my comfort level with the ball.”

While in Norway, she found out that that McDermott and Red Stars had drafted her to play in the WPS and that she would get to play professionally in her home state in front of family and friends.

“For never being away from home for 22 years, then being home 20 days in the last six months, then finding out I was going to Chicago to play, it’s just been an amazing experience,” said Masar. “The WPS is opening the doors for so many other players in the U.S. For men, a lot of them can look to Europe to make a living, but for us, the U.S. is it for women’s soccer. It’s humbling to think about this opportunity. To get to play the sport you love the most in front of the people you love the most, the ones who have been there with you for the whole journey, it’s just fantastic. Nothing is ever like home.”

All of that would have been enough for the 22-year-old Masar to chalk up the last year as one of the best of her young life, but then came the call to the full National Team. U.S. assistant coach Jillian Ellis had been at the U-23 training camp in San Diego, Calif., in early January, scouting players for Pia Sundhage’s squad. Masar was hoping to make the U-23 roster that is heading to Spain for a few matches in early February, but when 2008 Olympian Lauren Cheney had to pull out of camp due to school commitments, a roster spot opened up for a forward.

Hello, call-up.

“I was shocked,” said Masar, who has been capped eight times by the U-23s but never even trained with the senior side. “I knew there was a full team camp coming up, but I never expected to be called in. Two years ago, I came in with the 21s and I never thought I’d come back. I really came from humble soccer beginnings, but to get here and play with all these great players, it just makes you think that good things happen to people who work hard and never quit. You don’t have to have money to do ODP, or have a big name, you just need to have heart, a great support system and great coaches and I was lucky to have all of those. Who knows if I’ll ever be back here again? But I’m just going to have fun, do what the coaches tell me and soak up as much as I can.”

The words of fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln may sum up Masar’s soccer career: “Don't worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

When it comes to Ella Masar, you can count on that.