Ella Masar plays for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). She previously played for Chicago Red Stars and Paris Saint-Germain in France. In 2009 she played for the US Women’s National Team after twenty games for the U21 and U23 teams. Masar attended high school in Illinois and holds their record for most goals in a season and career. She went to the University of Illinois and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
This year you moved to Houston and managed to score both the first away and home goals in the club’s history. How happy were you with your individual performance?
When I came in a felt really good – I felt confident, that I had something to prove in getting those goals – but as a team we were really young. I was the third oldest on the team and I am 28. In Chicago I was one of the younger players so it was a huge change of player resumes. In June I started to get abdominal pain and in August I had to get double hernia surgery. The last three months was playing through a lot of pain and it was frustrating to watch my team go through that. The first home goal was against my old team Chicago and you can’t beat that!
How is your recovery process from surgery going?
I can’t play full out yet but I am training three to four times each week and I am seeing a movement specialist up here in Burnaby who is one of the best in the world. Going through his trainings has been incredible. We sit in front of a mirror and work on squatting without turning – pretty basic stuff – but I wish I would have learned it when I was eighteen.
Are there specific factors that motivate you more for some games over others? What about during the game?
I think when you get on the pitch I am pretty even keel. You can banter with the referees and they mostly know all of your names at this level but I don’t think their decisions necessarily motivate me. I go into every game being ready and I get pretty nervous. As long as that keeps happening I take it as a good sign that I still care and I focus on trying to let them go. As soon as the game starts I realize I love this and that it is what I want to do. The games mean the same to me but if I am playing in front of 17,000 fans in Portland compared to 1000 in other places there is a little bit more energy coming from the fans. Also playing a night game under lights amps me up, just from the atmosphere alone.
Do you play better home or away? Do you have a routine for how you travel that works for you?
At home was actually pretty incredible. My first game was in front of 8000 people and we played where the Houston Dynamo play. Using their locker rooms and having Thierry Henry the night before using the same space was the coolest feeling I’ve had. When you go to Portland and Seattle those are big matches too though. When I travel or play at home the only [superstitious] thing I have to do is make my bed. I listen to the same playlist for music too. If you have a great game you try to replicate what you did but it only goes on so long and then you have to change the routine to get the excitement. There is one song I listen to every time without fail though, which is called Prime from the Transformers movie. We listen to that right before going on the pitch.
You’ve played for professional teams all over the country and beyond. Is it difficult knowing you might have to move from one year to the next?
I’ve been doing this for six years now and have gotten used to it. Being in Paris for a year was a perk for sure. As you get older it is harder not to have a ‘home’ but up here in Vancouver I have everything that belongs to me so for once I feel a little bit settled. It is the name of the game though that if I want to keep playing I have to be willing to make the sacrifice and you can only do this for so long. I can set roots in the off season but each season has been somewhere else – Vancouver, Colorado, Denmark – each year a different place.
How does it affect your social life with the travel, training and restrictions?
Yes: the soccer world is so small. Up here I have Erin McLeod [who also plays for Houston], and Emily Zurrer who I lived with in college. I think you always find someone to train with. There are a bunch of guys coming back now who are in the off season as pro’s and that makes a community. You get your name out, they know you can play, then respect comes and it picks up from there.
So there is a different between how you train with men and women?
For women it is about how good you are on the pitch and having an ambiance on the off field stuff. For guys (who I train with mostly) you can get in a fight on the pitch but then you walk off and you are good. I really respect that about the men’s game. So at first they will question who you are so I’ll have to hit them hard or [nut]meg them. I rainbowed two guys last week just for fun and then instantaneously you get their respect.
Our understanding is that no players are full time in the NWSL. Do you have another job? How do you balance that with your commitment to the team?
For up here I am coaching a U13 team and am Technical Director of at West Vancouver Soccer Club. They have really helped me out a lot. Usually if I go overseas if I play September, October, November I don’t have to work for a few months after that – I can focus on training. You build up the bank account then when you go back in you are thankful for that first check. Here I really enjoy coaching; partly because I get money on the side but mostly because I get up and train and then I get to coach. I’d rather fill my day doing things than sit around and I feel like I can help the kids, giving them that drive to keep going and the technical aspects of the game that I really saw for the first time when I was at Paris Saint Germain. Trying to bring that back here has been a cool challenge for me.
How does the Division 1 level of college compare to the NWSL?
You go from taking the best players in the ‘States to the best players in the world. There are 23-37 year old players in the WPS and NWSL who have represented their country and have been around the game for a long time. Also the athleticism: you can have the best kids in college and they are the third or fourth slowest on the professional team. That’s the nature of it. I think the NWSL is more athletic than the WPS was before it. Back then we had Brazilians, Japanese and other big time players and with the NWSL we don’t have that yet because they have to see if it works. We still have some of the veterans and a lot of young players, but 25-27 there is a gap. When I graduated I didn’t play much at all in my first professional year. In my rookie year I was up against Christiane, Lindsey Tarpley and Megan Rapinoe who all had World Cup and Olympic medals. If you look at the college draft maybe five players will impact the league each year, then you will have some diamonds in the rough. We had a really good rookie this year who is super athletic and she caught up as the year went along and ended up having a phenomenal last chunk of the season (Kealia Ohai from North Carolina). When I was a rookie I had to stay after every session to do extra work, when they were all going home to relax. The reality was that I wasn’t at the level I needed to be at that point.
After a successful career at the University of Illinois, what made you want to continue in the game?
I remember I hadn’t left my hometown at [age] 22 and when DC called for the W-League [Washington Freedom] team and I knew that [Jim Gabarra] was going to be the head coach I figured why not go for it? I didn’t know if I wanted to do my master’s degree at that time and then I went to Norway through connections I had with Illinois. I got drafted after that and was able to become a professional athlete while being debt free, which was a great experience. When I was a kid at five years old I wrote down a goal that I wanted to be a professional athlete so that was always my dream. As I got better in the fall in Norway I had perfect timing to then go into the league.
If it hadn’t worked out for you, what would you be doing instead do you think?
I don’t know. I think it is hard for people who really love the game not to coach because I have been around it so long and enjoy it so much. I am still learning at 28 and will always be – I just learned a new shooting technique and I have been grinding it out for the last eight weeks where you are hitting the ball higher up on the bone [further away from the big toe towards the leg]. If you watch the men they are hitting it on the top of the bone there. So little things like that I am still learning and I would enjoy coaching too. It sounds cheesy but as I get older I would like to have kids and be a mom. I also have a personal training certificate and I enjoy healthy living too.
Your older brother also played Division 1 college soccer. Did you practice with him growing up? How much of a factor was that in your development?
Yes, my dad would not let him play American Football because he had played it and he didn’t want my brother to go through that, so we grew up playing soccer. I would chase him around and want to be like him. In college in the spring I would always go out and play with his team and train with them. In Chicago now I will always go play pickup with him and his friends. After my father passed he has always been the biggest supporter of my career. He was always bigger and stronger so I had to do different things or I would get pummeled and lose. At that point I would cry and want to give up but it was such a good lesson for me to learn because when I want to quit now I think of my brother calling me names and I don’t quit. I don’t think all kids get that experience to learn from.
As a Walk On player at college you weren’t recruited specifically by Illinois. Did other colleges make offers for you? How did you end up playing where you did?
I was a really athletic kid and I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have a travel team so I had no idea that you could go to Chicago and play for this massive club like Eclipse and travel to events in California and Seattle to play, so for me we played Chicago for the first time when I was 18 years old. So the only way they saw me play was they came to a game and could see that all I could really do was run really fast out of bounds! I also looked at DePaul University which is a private institution where you pay $45,000 and they would give me some scholarship which would be about equivalent to Illinois but I was financially by myself. I walked into Janet [Rayfield]’s office at Illinois and she said I can’t give you any money now but I promise that I will work with you and do my best to make you the best in the world and have all of your dreams come true. She believed in me, pushed me and I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for her. So I walked into my financial advisor with $250 to my name and asked how I could pay for an $18,000 per year university.
When did you specialize as a forward? Did you every play anywhere else?
Since I was a kid I was a number 9 and then Janet kept me there. As I have gotten older and am now on a young team I have dropped into a more withdrawn forward or number 10 role. If I could do it all over again I think I would have gone for center back. I think my physical attributes are best for that position, but I love being a goal scorer. There’s a certain pressure that comes with it but if you can learn how to challenge that and for that to drive you, you’ll be ok. I don’t believe that you really choose your position though – I think your body type determines it for you. If you can run fast or you are small and technical – that’s usually what determines your position. You do the best you can with the position that fits you.
You played for the U23 and U21 National teams. Had you previously played at younger levels on national or regional teams? How helpful was that process?
No. I think it would have helped me in the long run because people would have known who I was, but I think it also helped me because I wasn’t burned out when I hit college. When those top kids came in they lost that drive a bit because they were pushed so hard and I was just picking that up. I wish I had had the technical aspect that they had access to – they were taught movements and tactical understanding. For me it worked out not going through all of those levels though – it was just a longer road.
Was there one coach in your youth career who stood out to you? What did they do that helped you more than others?
Eddie McCauley. I played up two years at U16 and he was the U18 coach. He would manhandle me and demoralize me as a player. I thought he hated my guts but really he just saw the potential in me and wanted me to be better. He was an English guy who came over and coached my brother and his daughter was on my team. I fell in love with the game when I was on that team. Eddie was an old-school shine your boots, do it that way kind of coach. Then Janet came along and then Bill Irwin with the U23’s had a similar shine your boots style of doing it the right way. Those are the coaches who have most impacted my career.