Former Illini picked for pro soccer team

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Erica Magda

By Cody Westerlund

Former Illinois soccer star Ella Masar has taken the next step in her lifelong journey.

Masar, who suited up for the Illini from 2004-07, was chosen by the Chicago Red Stars with the ninth overall pick in the first round of last week’s Women’s Professional Soccer draft.

“I do not think words can truly describe the feeling when I found out,” Masar said via e-mail. “It still seems like such a blur. However, what I do remember is that there was a lot of screaming, hugging and crying.”

The WPS is the new, top-level women’s soccer league in the United States, and it will begin play in April 2009. Masar is the first Illinois soccer player to ever be drafted, and Red Stars head coach Emma Hayes is excited to have the attacking forward on board.

“Her ability to get behind the defense is second to none,” Hayes said. “She is one of the fastest players I’ve seen. She is very strong, very bright. We’ve identified her as someone who this league will be great for. In a couple years, I think Ella will be a top player in this country.”

Masar is currently in Oslo, Norway, playing for Team Strommen. She plans on returning to the U.S. on Nov. 20, and said that she expects to start training with the team soon after. The Red Stars officially begin training camp on March 1.

Masar is one of the most accomplished players in program history. She finished her career fifth in goals scored, second in assists and tied for first in game-winning goals. Illinois went to the NCAA tournament each year of Masar’s career, including an Elite Eight berth in 2004.

As a junior in 2006, Masar was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and led the Illini to a Sweet 16 appearance and runner-up finish in the conference. She garnered All-American honors both as a junior and senior.

Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield believes Masar will be a very successful player in the pro ranks.

“I don’t think I have coached a player who’s willing to work as hard as Ella,” Rayfield said. “You put her on the field, her explosiveness, her acceleration and her unbelievable physical courage, I think separates her from all the players in the country.”

Rayfield said Masar has the physical tools and work ethic to be an impact player at the next level right now. But she added the best part about Masar is that she will continue to rapidly develop her skills as she plays professionally on a daily basis.

After having played college soccer in her backyard, the Urbana, Ill., native is grateful to be drafted by the team closest to her hometown in a league that stretches from Boston to San Francisco.

“To be able to further my career only two hours north makes me feel like somebody needs to pinch me to wake me up,” Masar said.

In Chicago, Masar will reunite with former Illinois associate head coach Marcia McDermott, who is now the general manager of the Red Stars. Masar called that “another part of the fairy tale” and said she could not be in better hands.

“My dream has been to play for the (senior) national team, to represent our country, and now that I have received this blessing of playing professionally, I know its one step closer to achieving that,” Masar said.

Masar has national team experience, having played on the U.S. Under-23 National team this past summer that won the Nordic Cup in Sweden.

As lofty as Masar’s goals are, however, she has not forgotten where she came from or her time in the Orange and Blue.

“The support I have received and more importantly the University’s soccer program has been extraordinary,” Masar said. “My only hope is that I can continue to make C-U proud and that they know I am forever indebted to them for helping me attain my dreams.”