The 42,000 people currently living in Urbana make the city only the tenth most populated city in its own state, Illinois. Situated in the middle of Champaign County and around 125 miles from Chicago, it’s fair to say Urbana isn’t well-known worldwide, but it is the birthplace of footballer Ella Masar.
Born in April 1986, Masar has embarked on an eclectic and emotional playing career which started as a child and will end this summer after securing a league and cup double with current team Wolfsburg. Masar’s story is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking; from her family life as a child to the mistakes she admits she’s made throughout her career and life. Indeed, it’s taken yet more twists since we first spoke in March.
But, like many young players, it all started close to home. “My dad played American Football,” she says. “He tried to become professional from college but he knew the damage it could do to your body so he never let my brother play. I wanted to, I thought I could, but he pushed us towards soccer and I probably started when I was four or five, I just wanted to be like my brother.”
Masar comes from a family which includes three siblings. Aside from her older brother, she has two sisters – one of which is her twin – but they didn’t have a lot to rely on as children, and their situation got no easier as they grew up. Money was tight, both their parents were alcoholics, and her mum was diagnosed as bipolar while Masar was still a teenager, with their parents eventually divorcing.
Masar, though, was always going to pursue her dream, a rugged stubbornness overcoming her in the quest to not only forge her career but to find herself as a person – but it wasn’t always football. “I actually played basketball but as a five-foot-five white girl I didn’t feel that was my calling in life,” she laughs. “I played soccer at my local college and my coach told me, ‘I can’t give you money but I can make your dreams come true’.
“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up and I wasn’t financially independent. I always joke it’s good to be poor in a state where you go to college because when you have $1,000 bucks in your high school bank account, you get a lot of help. Fortunately for me, my coach stayed true to her word – I just needed the structure to help me take off.”
Masar was clearly a talented player. She still holds her school’s record with 40 goals in a single season and 92 overall in her time there and picked up several personal accolades during her time playing for the University of Illinois. But at home, things were less settled. During what was a difficult time for a youngster still making her way in the world, Masar now looks back at that time with a very different and more positive outlook.
“When you’re between 14 and 18 you don’t really ever understand why things are going the way they are,” she reflects. “You care a lot about what people think and you think people judge you on your parents and your lifestyle. That was one of the hardest lessons but now, at 32, I look back and I’m so proud of what I grew up in and I know it shaped me to be who I am today.”
She adds: “It can seem pretty bleak but I was very lucky to grow up when I did because we didn’t have social media to compare lives to, you didn’t have people showing off these perfect lives where maybe it’s not all that it really looks.”
For however tough their relative upbringings might have been, it’s not just Masar who has made a success of her life and career. “My older sister is a mother of four, she has a master’s degree and is head of a choir. My brother is a head engineer, happily married with two kids and my twin sister has her own counselling program, happily married with two kids.
“It’s really weird when your twin is having babies and I’m out running the beep test for a living,” she laughs. “My older sister, the reason she’s such an incredible mum is because she had to take care of us all sometimes, she had those mum qualities. Myself and my twin dealt with things differently and took some time to find out who we are; it’s so important kids know you don’t get a choice in how you grow up but you have a choice in how you let it define you.”
Masar’s career was going from strength to strength. After spells playing for several local Chicago sides, she found herself at Vancouver Whitecaps alongside US legend Tiffeny Milbrett and future international McCall Zerboni. A move to Washington followed before she headed abroad for the first time when she left home for Norway, a move which would signal the start of a time when Europe began to capture Masar’s heart.
But the start of the new WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) back in the USA quickly pulled Masar back home. She entered the draft and was selected by home state side Chicago Red Stars, managed at the time by Emma Hayes. “As a kid it was great,” she says. “The WPS had higher salaries than the NWSL. When you come in and sign with Chicago and have your rent included, then years later you go to Houston and you’re with a host family at 30 or paying for your own apartment, it’s more difficult.”
Masar has been lucky to sustain her career, with the latter years spent at two of Europe’s giants, but she understands why so many walk away from the game early due to financial insecurity. “When you’re 22 and coming out of school, you’re just happy to have a scholarship. When you get to 27 or 28, how many are still doing it? It’s not because they can’t, but the lifestyle is so unstable. I spent the off-seasons playing in Colorado, playing in Norway and I was lucky it fell into place.
“I travelled to Colorado with a friend to train before going to Houston. I had $150 in my bank account because I believed in my dream. I believed going to Colorado to train meant I could be the best I could. When you see your friends saving up, starting families, putting money away for their retirement, you wonder if the rewards are worth it. Are the positives greater than the negatives?”
Masar’s contract option wasn’t picked up by Chicago at the end of 2009 and she next surfaced at MagicJack alongside the likes of Hope Solo and Abby Wambach at the start of 2011. Six months later, she was off to Europe for her big break with Paris Saint-Germain after becoming the only player to publicly condemn team owner Dan Borislow for his mistreatment of players.
But even the most romantic, tranquil of cities would leave Masar with one of the tougher moments of her life. Just months into her time at the club, her father suffered a fatal heart attack. “Paris was such a different culture,” she recalls. “My time there was hindered because my dad passed away but I’m so grateful I got to come back to Europe in Sweden and then Germany. At PSG, that was sort of the first year they started to put a lot of money in and I have really good friends there. It was a great life experience.”
After six goals in 17 appearances, Masar returned to Chicago as the new NWSL was taking off. Eighteen months later, she was selected to play for Houston Dash at the start of 2014, along with future wife Erin McLeod who had also arrived in Texas.
Despite a new chapter opening in her personal life, it feels like Houston was when Masar started to have doubts about the sustainability of her career. One solitary cap for her country five years previous was as far as her international career progressed and it was McLeod who helped pull Masar out of difficult times and focus her mind on what she’d pursued her whole life. “When I was there, you sign for $18k and then every two years it goes up by 15 percent. I was 30 and making $25k but you’re putting half of that to rent, to gas, to a car. I remember crying and being upset, but I was very thankful to have Erin because she always told me to follow my dreams and it would work out.”
After a tough 2014, Masar says 2015 was “hands down the best 12 months of my life”. Aside from a solid year with Houston and her now partner playing at her home World Cup, Masar came out publicly at the start of 2015 and the pair married in the summer after McLeod’s Canada bowed out of the World Cup.
But at the end of 2015, it appeared Masar’s playing career was over, such was her commitment to her new wife. McLeod was heading to FC Rosengård, one of Europe’s giants, to pursue her own dream of winning the Champions League. In order to be close to McLeod, Masar requested to leave Houston but had no intention of playing on, despite having only just reached 30.
“It’s a crazy story,” she laughs. “Erin’s dream was to play Champions League and it wasn’t worth it for me to stay in Houston. Rosengård needed some players and I ended up flying over for this crazy two-day trial. Erin really had to push me. I had to buy the plane ticket, Erin told me to get on that plane but I really didn’t want to, I was ready for the next step in my life but you never know what is going to happen. Erin was preparing for Champions League and Olympics and then she did her ACL again. In an instant, she went from the top of her game to wondering if she’s ever going to play again.”
Masar signed a contract for the 2016 season and went from accepting her career was over to playing in a front three alongside Lieke Martens and Marta. A successful season saw Masar score 13 goals, the same as the Brazilian superstar, and sign on again for 2017. Another 13 goals followed but no title as Rosengård lost out to Linköping in both seasons, but Masar’s European career was up and running when it looked like never taking off.
“I appreciate you saying my name with those two,” she laughs. “Marta was coming to a decision of how she could prolong her career whereas Lieke was this young, natural talent just breaking through. Against Marta, in training I would just try and be a defender for fun. She’s the one player every time I’d think I’d have her and she’d just go. She has this touch and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in another player.”
Her success at Rosengård offered up new opportunities, this time a move to Bundesliga champions and genuine Champions League hopefuls, VfL Wolfsburg.
McLeod was set on a move back to the US in the hope of reigniting her international career ahead of the 2019 World Cup, but fate would intervene and, after Masar signed for Wolfsburg, McLeod followed her to Germany with USV Jena. “There were definitely some moments of uncertainty but when you only have one or two years left it feels so short and you don’t really know how it will affect your lives.”
On her on life and career in Germany, Masar says: “I take five hours of German classes a week and every time I come out thinking I have no idea what I’m doing. French is quite a romantic language and one of the simpler [ones], I think it’s really cool to do so I can speak to our Scandinavian and our Germans.”
The success has continued, too. Two Bundesliga titles and two German Cups back-to-back have been sealed, but the Champions League will elude after two successive eliminations to champions Lyon.
With the season coming to a close, Masar is now genuinely ready for the next step and accepting of this being her last as a player. “You have to soak in the good times because you prepare for the bad, it’s just a matter of the business,” she admits. “It would be lovely to be a men’s player, if I was I’d never have to work again. Wolfsburg’s men are incredibly well paid and so are we on the women’s side, if I’d had that my whole career I wouldn’t be looking for a job next year. But we choose to do this, it’s an honour to play but at the same time there’s aspects of the game people might not understand until you’re in [it].”
Ironically, Masar is at her best and walking away at the peak of her career. Her fitness scores are some of the best in Wolfsburg’s all-star squad and she admits to being “humbled” at discovering what her body can still do just weeks after turning 33. “I wonder if I’d come here at 22 and developed in this kind of environment, coming to train every single day. You’re tired but it doesn’t matter. If you’re not sharp you know you’re not as good as the rest. But I have to trust the journey was the way it was for a reason and maybe it’s coaching next that will help me achieve the glory I always dreamed of as a kid.”
Masar is in reflective mode as she goes back to her early days, pondering just how much football has changed as a person over the years. “Football has been my greatest teacher because it’s taught me what I’m made of in so many ways,” she says. “It’s about in the good times, can you stay humble? When nobody’s there and you’re all alone, are you going to show up and do your job? I don’t have any regrets, you make mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes, personal, friendships, but in the end, I know for sure I’m a better and stronger human being. That’s why I’ll always be grateful for football.”
Unlike many, Masar isn’t afraid to admit her mistakes and one of her biggest takes her back to her teenage years when she had a boyfriend back home in Illinois. “I grew up, I had a hard life, then I met this guy who was a Christian with a preacher for a dad,” she recalls. “You learnt to follow everything the Bible says. I told some of my best friends that to be gay was wrong and I will completely admit my mistakes, I didn’t know any better.
“I came from a small town, I believed everything and I never had a chance to find out what those words meant to me. I think the hypocrisy of religion was a lesson I needed to learn. People ask me now if I’m still religious, I think the world has put an interesting perspective on my religion, but what my mum told me is if you’re really true to your religion you’re really just trying to make the world a better place, and it doesn’t matter what religion you are.”
She adds: “If I talk to God, I say I’m talking to my dad because I believe there is heaven and I believe he’s up there watching over me, that works for me.”
It shows how quickly Masar’s life has changed from telling friends being gay is wrong to marrying McLeod four years ago, but she believes it’s only right to be able to look back and say you were wrong about things. “I go back to MagicJack where I thought I did the right thing in so many ways and I think I did, I stand by what happened but the way I treated some people was wrong. The world isn’t black or white and I’ve had to understand those mistakes, things I’ve told people that are so wrong.
“I’ve had the humility to admit my mistakes. You never know what people are going through or what happened when they were kids. You can’t judge someone, ever. Me and Erin both came from small towns, many people in my hometown still don’t think it’s ok for me to have a wife.”
Now it’s very much time for the next step in Masar’s career and her life. She’ll undertake her UEFA B Licence in Germany this summer after finishing her final season with Wolfsburg, despite several offers from top teams to carry on. “You never know what can happen in our world but there’s a point in your life when you have to realise what’s most important,” she says, contemplatively. “I’ve done more things than I could have ever imagined. I’ve never been pushed away, soccer’s been my greatest love but also my greatest heartbreak.
“This has been the hardest year of my career. You show up, work, see these improvements but you don’t play as much. I want a family, I want to have kids but in our world, as a woman, by 35 you’re considered geriatric. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t play a part in my decision. I’m tired of doing this kind of work and thinking, ‘what does it show for itself?’ That’s why I think it’s the right time. But I can be excited and look at how I’m going to help the next generation with their crossing, shooting, preparation for World Cups. I think it’s the moment in my life to do something else. For me, it’s time for the next chapter.”
Two months later, we are forced to reconvene. Shortly after talking through her life and career, Masar and McLeod announced their amicable split on social media as Masar prepared to retire from football and McLeod prepared for one final assault on the World Cup with Canada.
The day after Masar sealed her final Bundesliga trophy with Wolfsburg, she opens up about the decision, why it happened and what she’ll do next. “The one thing I want to address the most is people have made comments about ‘I can’t believe they broke up on Instagram’, and that makes me quite infuriated because it’s not like it happened recently, it’s kind of the last year we’ve been going through this, and we felt it was a thing of respect to tell people because a lot of people followed us because of who we are.
“We chose to be open because that’s how we started and I wouldn’t change anything at this point with how her and I have presented ourselves. People were asking so many questions for months now and we both agreed it was a way for us to say we still love each other, we respect each other, and to tell our fans this is how we feel and this is what’s happening.”
Masar is also keen to hit home the point that the split is amicable and the two will remain friends for the future. “It’s really hard to put your heart out there and express what you’re going through, no matter how it ends. I will always love Erin and Erin will always love me, but it’s not just us it affects. It’s our families, our friends, it’s a real hard transition, but for us it was a way to say this is us at peace, we’re ok, we want to be friends, we’re serious about our dogs and that’s our commitment to ourselves.
“We’ve had some troubles, distance between us to be really candid. I came here 18 months ago, it’s not a long time and we were both very committed and loving at that point, however distance started to get the best of us and in the summer, we had some decisions to make, both professionally and personally, and we chose professionally.
“We both kind of knew at that point we could do professional, we both fell in love because of football but we both knew this wasn’t maybe what we thought it was going to be once we chose professional. Our love is still bigger than the pain and the hurt, we wanted to send that message to people. We both never thought we’d be divorced at 33 and 36 but we’re committed to being good role models.”
She adds: “I hope Erin writes a book one day because her story is truly incredible. There’s no hard feelings, we’re still talking and we’re just taking our time to grow from each other and hopefully move on together. For example, if she makes the World Cup squad, which I think she should, if Erin’s going to the semis or the final then I’m going. I’ve been with her the last five years and she wants me to be there. I can never say anything bad about Erin. She’s an incredible human being, someone who will do anything for her dream and I knew that was the woman I fell in love with.
“I don’t regret anything. It’s a little bit scary now, I have one week left of football and the plan was to go home and have kids but I’ve learned everything happens for a reason but you can either beat yourself up or put your head up and see what I can get out of it, that’s kind of where I am.”
With Masar now embarking on a new chapter in her life professionally, as she aims to become a coach, she at least sees the possibilities moving forward as she prepares to essentially hit reset on her life at 33. “I’m excited. I’m scared shitless, but excited,” she laughs. “I’ve never had so many teams want me to play in my career and I’m walking away, but I know in my heart I’m ready. I have my coaching course coming up and in everything bad there’s something good. I’ve learned a new language, met great people – it is a restart.
“I’ve earned four trophies and been a part of a Champions League final in 18 months, I never imagined saying that. I know I’ve earned every bit of it. It’s been one of the hardest periods of my life but also one of the most rewarding, that’s the balance. I said before about how many mistakes I’ve made but I will never say Erin McLeod is one.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty