What lies ahead for the Chicago Red Stars is a daunting May that carries over into the first day of June: four out of five games on the road, including a home-and-home with league-leading Portland Thorns FC.
That stretch, which comes after two home games to open the season, begins Saturday night in Somerville, Mass. against a Boston Breakers side that just impressively upended the Western New York Flash last Saturday.
“We’re about to go into a three game streak in 10 days, so this is where we’ll get tested and see what we’re all about,” Red Stars forward Ella Masar said earlier this week.
Masar, who Red Stars coach Rory Dames said in preseason is “due for a breakout year,” finds herself playing the role of provider more than striker in the opening two matches of league play. Masar says the team has been preparing for this sort of stretch since Day 1 of training camp, and points out that the schedule only gets more challenging, like in June when Chicago plays a Sunday-Thursday-Sunday-Wednesday stretch.
That’s quite an 11 days. By the end of that run, the league table should have more clarity and perhaps a new look, Masar says.
“I would be very, very surprised if how the league looks right now after three games is what it looks like in August,” she said, citing national team callups.
Parity is expected in the NWSL, which for better or worse adopted strict roster rules primarily to control spending, but also in an attempt to balance competition. Masar, who played for Paris Saint-Germain in a top-heavy French league led by two-time defending UEFA Champions League winner Lyon, says there is no place else with as much parity as the United States, whether it was WPS or, now, NWSL.
“The league (NWSL) from No. 1 through No. 8, I think it will be the best league in the world,” she said.
Always a powerful, hard-working player, Masar played taller than her 5-foot-5-inch frame in Women’s Professional Soccer. But results were up and down for Masar — who scored eight goals in two seasons with Chicago — and for the Red Stars, who failed to make the playoffs in each of their two WPS seasons. And a 2011 season marred (still very mysteriously and lacking in details) by a magicJack team battling the league on various rules brought Masar out of her comfort zone.
But unlike many players who settle for amateur soccer or stagnant years in 2012, when WPS folded, Masar played for Champions League soccer with Paris Saint-Germain, scoring six goals with the club during the 2011-12 season. That year abroad reignited a confidence in her that she said she had been lacking — a confidence she is anxious to show in this young NWSL season.
“I think down there (in Boca Raton, Fla., home of magicJack), I was stripped of that (confidence),” Masar said. “I let a lot of that outside stuff get in and I think I had a chance to step away from the game and play for fun over in France, where you don’t really understand at first what people are saying. You just get to enjoy it; and I had to find that again. I got to play Champions League and that was very important to me. And now I’m coming back and you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you earn. I want to prove everybody what I’ve earned and how hard I’ve worked the last two years.”
But as beneficial as Masar’s time in France may have been, it came with tragedy back home. Her father, Terry William Masar, died on Oct. 23, 2011. Masar stayed in France and played — through the pain, yes, but also in her father’s name.
“I knew my father would want me to play,” she said. “And then when I came home in June, that was when I had to deal with what everyone else in my family had dealt with for eight months.”
She wrote about what she was going through — and how all she knew at that time was soccer — in a series of blogs.
“Today is a hard day, but tomorrow I will try again to live for him,” Masar wrote in a Nov. 21, 2011 blog post. “Someone told me that one of the best ways to keep someone alive (in you) is to live out their best qualities everyday. The days I can smile and laugh are those days my father is living through me.”
Today Masar, an Urbana, Ill., native, carries on with the Red Stars once again, in a new league with new goals, but once again close to home. And as the Red Stars embark on this road stretch, without the injured Shannon Boxx and still without their two German additions, Masar knows she’ll need to step up.
“It’s just about being creative and finding your role on a team, and I have to get more shots off,” Masar said. “I have to create and I have to make people want to defend me; I think that goes for any forward in the league.”
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