By Michael Lewis
Before he made he and his Colchester United team played at Wembley Stadium in 1992, Mike Masters got some sage advice from some veterans:
“They said, ‘Look, it’s great to play there but it really sucks to lose there. So, make sure you win.’ ”
The Long Island native made the most out of his match on the hallowed ground. Not only did Colchester United capture the FA Trophy, the 24-year-old Masters scored the first goal of the 3-1 triumph over Witton Albion before 30,000 spectators.
In doing so, Masters became the first American to score a goal at Wembley.
Two other U.S. players followed in his footsteps. Former U.S. international captain and midfielder John Harkes became the first USA player to score there in a League Cup final, with Sheffield Wednesday, in 1993 and Christian Pulisic became the first American to accomplish that feat in the 2020 F.A. Cup final. Pulisic, another USMNT midfielder, will attempt to duplicate his feat again when Chelsea meets Leicester City at Wembley Saturday at 12:30 ET (ESPN+).
Earlier this week, Master was asked to recount his Wembley experience.
“The impact it had on the fans and the club was far greater than what i knew it to be at the time,” he said. “For me, it’s been nice just to say I was the first American to score. John Harkes had played there the year before. I think the year after [Masters]. But I knew it was a big deal when John became the first American to play there.
“It was a lot of fun. It was very important for the club and it’s a nice memory.”
A special and whirlwind seven weeks
Actually, Masters had several nice memories some 29 years ago from what transpired over an amazing and whirlwind seven weeks in which he wore the uniforms of three teams:
* He helped his side gain promotion to the English Football League with his first professional hat-trick that May 2
* He made history at Wembley with that goal May 10
* He scored twice for the San Francisco Blackhawks on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean May 16, less than a week after his historic goal
* And he made his U.S. men’s national team debut June 28
Mike Masters with the FA Trophy. (Photo courtesy of Mike Masters)
After a standout career at Williams College at which he was an NCAA Division III All-American for his final two seasons while scoring a school record 44 goals (subsequently broken), signed with the Albany Capitals of the American Professional Soccer League. He led the league with 14 goals during the 1991 campaign as the Capitals lost to the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks in the championship game.
He journeyed to England and enjoyed a successful trial with Colchester United, which played in the GM Vauxhall Conference, the fifth division.
Masters finished the season with a flourish. He connected for those three goals in a 5-0 home victory over Barrow before 7,193 delighted spectators. The Wheatley School graduate had the first and last words, finding the net in the eighth and 15th minutes to boost Colchester into a 2-0 advantage. His 77th-minute goal was the exclamation point.
In contrast to today’s promotion/relegation playoffs, teams needed to thread the needle to move up.
Make that double for Colchester United, which finished tied with the Wycombe Wanderers with 94 points apiece. Superior goal differential decided the winner as Colchester had +58 and Wycombe had +49. So, every goal counted, especially in the May 2 regular-season league finale.
“Only one team gets promoted, and one team relegated, at least at the time that was the case,” Masters said. “It was a tight race. They were coached by Martin O’Neill, who went on to coach at quite high levels.”
O’Neill went onto direct Norwich City, Leicester City (two Football League Cups), Celtic (three Scottish Premier League titles), Aston Villa, Sunderland and Nottingham Forest in league action and the Republic of Ireland (Euro 2016) for five years.
Masters said that winning the conference “was really more important for the club than the FA Trophy file.”
“The trophy was getting silverware in the trophy cabinet and the for the club that is very important but for the club’s survival – we really they need to get back in the Football League.”
The next stop was Wembley. It was a big deal, but let’s face it, moving up to the top four divisions of English soccer was more lucrative for the club.
“If you’re not in the Football League and you don’t get the same fans turning out so the clubs are making as much fun as you can pay the players as much,” Masters said. “Then the quality of play goes down. So it’s a big. It could spiral away from you if you’re not fortunate to get right back up. That was a real important accomplishment.”
Masters said winning the cup “was a little bit of gravy on it. Doing a double is an accomplishment.”
It also was a big deal for the city of Colchester, which claims to be England’s oldest town and is 50 miles northeast of London.
A goal and a trophy
Some 30,000 fans, many from Colchester (the borough of Colchester had a population of around 190,000) showed up to cheer their heroes on against Witton Albion May 10.
Entering the match, the 6-4, 202 lb. Masters, who had scored seven goals in 18 appearances across all competitions that season, hadn’t tallied during the FA Trophy tournament. Only five minutes after the opening kickoff, all that changed when Masters took a long throw-in from player-manager Roy McDonough, as he cut in front of a defender and headed it in.
Mike Masters scores his Wembley goal. (Photo courtesy of Mike Masters)
“It was a cup final at Wembley [and] nervous a little bit,” Masters said.
“It did settle you down. Cup final, Wembley, everyone was nervous a little. We were very confident.”
The team added two more goals to close out a 3-1 win.
After being awarded the coveted trophy, Colchester United players walked the 39 steps to the Royal Box where they were congratulated and received their winners’ medals.
“I was just happy to have won,” Masters said. “It was fun afterwards. I was sort of picked up in the moment by my teammates. They were all English or Irish. So, they were really swept up in the moment of it all and I kind of got caught up with that.
“Honestly, I didn’t grow up watching a lot of FA Cup finals. For me it was just important to win the game and then enjoy and afterwards walk out the steps, passing the trophy from player to player. You raise it over your head and all the fans cheer. That was all great. That’s tradition that I hadn’t really experienced before. So that was one like walking up the steps itself was just afterwards, it was great to say you did it. But at the time it was nothing special really.”
Back in the USA
Masters hardly had an opportunity to celebrate as he joined the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks two days later. His former coach at Albany, one-time English international Paul Mariner, told Masters that San Fran was interested.
“It was possible that MLS was coming after that,” Masters said. “So, I just wanted to keep playing.”
And play he did. Head coach Laurie Calloway had no problem starting Masters, who complied with two goals and an assist in a 3-1 home victory over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Blackhawks, which boasted such U.S. internationals as Eric Wynalda, John Doyle and Dominic Kinnear, moved into undisputed possession of APSL first place.
“We brought in Mike because we felt very strongly that he could do just what he did tonight – score goals and create chances for his teammates,” Calloway was quoted by the San Francisco Examiner. “He caused a lot of problems for the Strikers and he got his goals through sheer desire.”
He kept on scoring. After one training session, Calloway told Masters that he had been called up for a national team game at the end of June.
Mike Masters (right) and his Colchester teammates with a special trophy. (Photo courtesy of Mike Masters)
Masters’ ability to put the ball into the back of the net found USMNT head coach Bora Milutinovic, who was trying to build a competitive team for the 1994 World Cup, which the USA hosted. One of the U.S.’s goals was to get out of the group stage in one piece. No host side had failed in reached the knockout round through that time.
“I think scoring at Wembley, it was a nice tagline and to get some press,” Master said. “That probably helped. Playing with the Blackhawks week in and week out and having some people watching me there [helped as well].”.
Masters came on as a 58th-minute substitute for Wynalda in a scoreless draw at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J. June 28. “It was great. It was great,” he said.
“When I got the call, it wasn’t necessarily something on my radar. I mean I knew the World Cup was coming. It wasn’t something I expected. It was wonderful surprise. And then just being part of it was great. The equipment’s better, the training’s better. Fun. More fans are interested in the games. Just a higher level all around. Playing with great players. It’s an experience difficult to describe. I was only there for a very short time but enjoyed every minute.”
Masters then needed surgery to get some bone spurs removed from his ankle. “That was bad timing because I was in really good form at the time,” he said.
He was invited to January 1993 camp in Mission Viejo, Calif. and trained with the USMNT for a few weeks.
“Just never progressed, never really got back to that form and wasn’t really for his style of player, I think,” Masters said. “It was good times.”
Not too rough of a ride
Masters went back to Europe as he returned to England, trying to catch on with Newbury Town. He didn’t have enough international caps, so Masters joined the Boston Storm in the U.S. Interregional Soccer League. In 1994, he signed with essentially his hometown team, Long Island Rough Riders, for whom he thrived. During the team’s 1995 USISL championship season, Masters formed a virtually unstoppable dynamic duo with Gio Savarese (33 goals). Masters finished with 19.
“We both had similar attitudes, and that we wanted to work for each other,” he said. “But one of the things that made us, difficult to defend against is that we made good runs for each other, opened up spaces and were always available to our teammates as targets to get the ball. We both sort of understood that we don’t have superstars as a team. We’re both hungry for goals and created goals and made space for each other.”
The Rough Riders boasted quite a team with USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola in goal and future Major League Soccer standouts Chris Armas, Jimmy Rooney and Savarese, among others.
Years later, Rough Riders head coach Alfonso Mondelo credited Masters’ overall performance, which led to the Rough Riders’ success. “Mike really opened up the game for us and allowed us to play the way we did,” he said. “A lot of Gio’s goals came from Mike. Every team had to worry about him.”
A second career
It was during his Rough Riders tenure that Masters felt he had to prepare for life outside of soccer, attending business school and being a graduate assistant coach at DePaul University.
“Amazingly it worked out,” he said. “They were on a quarter system so and it was mostly a part-time program. So I would go, I would take a full load of classes in the fall, winter quarter and then come back for the Roughriders for six months.”
After earning his MBA, Masters joined Barclays Bank as an investment banker, spent several years based in London before returning to New York. Today he works in the bank’s high yield syndicate that’s managed investment banking.
Masters didn’t have any regrets although he admitted it wasn’t an easy decision to move away from soccer at the time.
“There have been some players that have gone on to have coaching careers,” he said. “I think at the time, there was a lot of uncertainty around, what would happen with MLS. There were limited jobs at colleges to coach. We weren’t making any money playing soccer. Everyone had another job or training teams, working, and so forth. We love the sport, love playing. It was fine with me. I was single, can always sleep at my parents. So, I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities while I was playing soccer and it was easy for me to move around.
“I felt that getting into finance was going to be another new challenge for me. That’s I wanted to take on. Sometimes I wonder what would have been happier had I gone to coaching or stayed in soccer in some ways, some way but at the time, that was the right thing to do. I’m happy with the choice.”
And his place in American soccer history as well.