Illini fall to pros, but storyline is returning greats

In a game that featured a pair of former Illini soccer players returning to their roots, it was only fitting that just after their names were announced, a cloudy sky opened up and two rainbows cast over the Illinois Soccer and Track Stadium.

In an exhibition between the Illinois soccer team and the Chicago Red Stars of the newly formed Women’s Professional Soccer league, the Illini faced Ella Masar and Mary Therese McDonnell, two graduates of the program who made their way on to the pro team’s roster. And though the game ended in a blowout, it was a special day for both sides.

“Ella and I were walking on and the music was playing, and we were so used to being on the Illini side, it was pretty strange, but it’s definitely good to be back,” said McDonnell, who checked into the game for the final 20 minutes, while Masar started.

Every element of weather appeared throughout the game to juxtapose the emotions both former players were feeling. But make no mistake, the players, and the Illini, were there to compete.

“I don’t think we step on the field not trying to be competitive,” Illinois head coach Janet Rayfield said. “We don’t play a game like this at that level without hoping to learn from it. I told the team in the locker room before we came out, ‘They’re going to do some things that we’re going to be amazed at, but whatever happens, compete for —linebreak—90 minutes.'”

Facing a slew of international superstars, Illinois held its own, even keeping the Red Stars scoreless until just more than eight minutes remained in the first half. In the second half, however, the Red Stars put on a scoring clinic, netting seven goals, including five in a six-minute span. With a young lineup of freshmen starting for the first time, Illinois was overmatched, falling 8-0.

And, in front of hometown fans, Masar was even able to score a goal, which she jokingly credited as a gimme from Illinois goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka, who misplayed the ball.

“I didn’t feel the best, I think it was something we ate, so I’m glad I got that goal. I think Alex helped me on that one,” Masar said.

But in a game that was about learning for the Illini and a final tune-up for the Red Stars before their inaugural game Saturday, the storyline was undoubtedly Masar’s and McDonnell’s returns. Both hugged their former teammates and coaches after the game and heard loud cheers from the crowd.

“They set the standard for this program,” said Illini midfielder Courtney Bell, a two-year teammate of the duo. “It was good to see them playing at the professional level; we’re definitely all happy for them. And it was good to be able to compete against them and see where they are right now.”

Rayfield said it was an important motivator for her players not only to compete against professionals, but also to see their peers make it there.

“I think it means a ton for them in a sense that there are players currently in Illinois uniforms that have aspirations some day of putting on professional uniforms. And to see some of their teammates in that level, it’s inspirational,” she said.

Though their careers are about to take them across the country, neither Masar or McDonnell said they would forget their time at Illinois.

“You just can’t take away home,” Masar said.