New life in the Old World: The nomadic American aiming for World Cup 2019 ... with Canada
Ella Masar is a Canadian citizen. She and her wife, Erin McLeod, spend their offseasons in Vancouver, which they consider home, especially since the 2016 U.S. election made their choice of residence within North America that much simpler. She has even gone curling.
Could Masar, by FIFA’s definition, complete her nationality change – and cap a peripatetic playing career – by wearing red in a World Cup?
“Any national team would benefit from having her,” says Ali Riley, Masar’s teammate with Swedish club FC Rosengard and herself an American-born player who has been to the World Cup with another country (New Zealand, her father’s birthplace).
Masar’s feelings on the matter are simple. She wants to play for her new country along with her wife, Canada’s goalkeeper in three World Cups and two Olympics. But as with all things FIFA, the process is complicated.
The Illinois-born player, whose versatility defies easy categorization into one position, has one cap for the United States women’s national team – a 2009 friendly in Germany. That’s not the issue. FIFA allows a one-time nationality switch for players who didn’t compete in a “competitive” match, and those rules may be eased soon.
FIFA could at least use some clarity. A statute called “Acquisition of a new nationality” says a player who isn’t already tied to one national team may switch if (among other possibilities, none of which apply to Masar) “he has lived continuously for at least five years after reaching the age of 18 on the territory of the relevant association.” (See page 71 here.)
In Masar’s case – indeed, for most professional soccer players – it’s impossible to “live continuously” anywhere. She has been spending her offseasons in Canada, but she has been playing elsewhere – in the U.S., in France, then in Sweden with FC Rosengard, where she has been one of the league’s top scorers in each of her two seasons, attracting attention across Europe.
Canada Soccer and a representative of FIFPro, the international players union, declined comment on Masar’s pending case. But Masar is fully engaged with FIFPro and is encouraged by what she’s heard from Canadian coach John Herdman and others north of the border.
“I think they’re positive,” Masar says. “Last winter, I was in training with them a little bit. They needed some numbers. I’ve become a fan of them with Erin. I’ve talked to John a couple of times. They’re in the waiting game as well. From what I can tell, if we get this done with FIFA, he’ll give me a chance – if I keep doing my job, he’ll definitely give me a chance.”
And Masar’s “job” has been remarkable.
Two years ago, she had all but retired. At age 29, she bid farewell to the Houston Dash for the typical reasons many older players leave the National Women's Soccer League – the money, which in the NWSL ranges from $15,000 to $41,700, annually, simply isn’t enough to keep players in the game.
But Masar’s playing status and personal life had become intertwined. She went public with her relationship with McLeod, Houston’s goalkeeper at the time. McLeod, certainly in demand in the global marketplace, was bound for Rosengard in late 2015. Masar was content to go with her, hang up her cleats and just enjoy the relative comfort of a soccer family’s life in Sweden – year-round pay, an apartment, a stadium within walking distance and everything else accessible by bike or the occasional Uber. Then things changed.
“They just wanted Erin,” Masar said. “In September, they’re like, ‘We want Ella to come.’ They said you have to pay your own flight. I was ready to just give up the game. But then Erin’s like, ‘You’re getting on that plane, I’m paying for your flight over there.’ And the rest is history.”
She didn’t just extend her career a couple of years. Playing alongside global stars such as Marta, Lieke Martens, Anja Mittag and Caroline Seger, she found another level.
Masar has been a productive player with her teams in WPS and the NWSL. But she has stood out even more in Europe, dating back to a few months after her college graduation in 2008, when she scored Strommen’s lone goal in a Norwegian Cup final defeat. She scored six goals in a brief stint with Paris Saint-Germain during the 2011-12 season.
With Rosengard, she’s been simply sensational. The team has finished second in the Damallsvenskan and won the Swedish Cup in each of her two seasons. And in each of those seasons, she has scored 13 goals in 21 games. Not bad for a player who isn’t even a full-time attacker.
“She can do it all, and she’s played every position on our team except center back and goalie,” Riley said.
While Masar can also play the physical American game – Riley joked that her boyfriend was intimidated by Masar’s substantial biceps – she also fits well with the technical and tactical European game.
“She loves football, watches it and studies it,” Riley said. “After away games, she’s already got the replay on her phone taking notes before I’ve even gotten on the bus. She’s a player that has improved through dedication and hours and hours of extra training and analysis – that can explain why maybe it’s taken longer to reach this point but it also means she’s still getting better.”
So if FIFA smiles upon her bid for a nationality switch, she’ll be prepared to challenge for a spot on Canada’s team.
That said, time is of the essence. The World Cup isn’t until 2019. But qualifiers will take place in 2018, and Masar says she wouldn’t feel right about taking a place from someone who had helped Canada book its ticket to France.
And so she waits and makes sure she’s sharp.
“I know what I need to do,” Masar said. “I’m playing and staying active.”
Whether she’s playing in France in 2019 or merely cheering, she has found a happy home.
“I’m just so thankful that we can go home to Canada.”