May 10, 1992. Colchester United, a team in England's fifth division -- The Football Conference -- took the field at Wembley Stadium to play Witton Albion in the FA Trophy Final. It was the first time in the club's 55-year history that it was playing beneath the Twin Towers at England's -- and the world's -- most hallowed football grounds. United's home stadium, Layer Road, held just over 6,000 fans but when the club earned its spot in the FA Trophy Final, more than 30,000 Colchester supporters -- a third of the city's population -- bought tickets and filled Wembley on that spring day, singing and screaming and urging their hometown club to its greatest victory.
At the midfield stripe towered one of United's most dangerous offensive threats: a 6-foot-4, 190 pound forward, a 24-year-old American named Mike Masters. A week before, Masters had scored a hat trick in a 5-0 win over Barrow, a victory that earned United its first ever Conference championship. Now this American kid -- only the third American to ever play at Wembley -- lined up on England's most storied pitch to try to help Colchester earn a non-league double.
These days, turn on your TV any weekend from August to May and you'll see American players competing in the world's top leagues. Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey and over half a dozen more in the English Premier League. Steve Cherundolo in the Bundesliga. Michael Bradley in Serie A. Scores of others in Holland, Denmark, Austria and other countries.
This summer, Clint Dempsey's Premier League future -- would Liverpool sign him? Would Fulham keep him? -- and his eleventh-hour transfer to Tottenham Hotspur was one of the biggest stories of the annual transfer season.
They're making waves on the field, too; Jozy Altidore has 11 goals in 16 games for AZ Alkmaar in Holland this season. Just a few weeks ago, Dempsey tapped in the game winner that gave Spurs its first victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in 23 years.
Of course, it's taken 20 years to get to this point. Cobi Jones, who played in three World Cups for the U.S. and holds the all-time record for national team appearances (164), once told me that "there was no respect for American players. During that time... for guys that wanted to be successful overseas, you were a journeyman. You had to go and fight and travel."
Mike Masters was one of those journeymen. He was just two years out of college the day he walked onto the field at Wembley. He'd played college soccer, not at one of the traditional powerhouses -- Virginia or Indiana or UCLA -- but Division III soccer at Williams College, a liberal arts school with just 2,000 students in Williamston, Mass. He'd wanted to play both soccer and basketball in college -- which he could do at Williams -- and he liked the balance of athletics and academics he'd get at the college.
Mike Russo, his college coach and still the head coach at Williams, remembers him well: "He was 6-4, about 185, 190. Very good technically and had a good tactical understanding. Very confident and composed. Natural finisher." Russo started Masters at left back his freshman year and he scored five goals, including a game winner against Division I Dartmouth. After that season, Russo moved him up to forward. Masters went on to earn the school's scoring record, was a first team All-American his junior and senior year and captained both the soccer and basketball teams.
Prior to college, Masters had had no plans of playing professional soccer. "Certainly, going into college, I never thought it was something I would wind up doing," he says.
But by his senior year, the Albany Capitals of the American Soccer League came calling. His first season with the Caps, Masters says he did "reasonably well." The next season he was the top scorer in the ASL and began to see an opportunity for himself. This was 1990. The World Cup had just ended. The Olympics were two years away. At the time, a FIFA regulation prevented any player who had competed in a World Cup from playing in the Olympics, which would have excluded that famous roster of college kids who represented the U.S. at Italia '90.
Masters had never earned an international cap but figured he might be able to make the Olympic team. "In my mind, with all the U.S. players being ineligible to play in the Olympics, I thought I would have a shot." But he saw a problem: he didn't play enough. "Playing April to August and stopping for six months was not gonna do it."
Eric Wynalda, also a veteran of three World Cups for the U.S. national team who competed in the German Bundesliga for four seasons, played with Masters at the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks of the American Professional Soccer League in 1992. He understood the dilemma.
"There wasn’t even a league yet (in America) that simulated anything real. Because everything was so unprofessional, it was hard to decipher who could really play and who couldn't."
But Wynalda remembers Masters' unique knack for scoring goals. "He had something, and it was deceiving. He always seemed to pop up in the right spot. Anything and everything I crossed he scored."
One of Masters' teammates at Albany was Paul Mariner, currently the head coach at Toronto FC. Mariner had earned 35 caps for the English national team and spent the bulk of his career at Ipswich Town Football Club. "He was a striker like I was," Masters says. "He took me under his wing as a younger player."
Mariner, Wynalda says, was one of the few people in the ASL or APSL who could really identify talent. "Paul was the one that saw through all of that and said, 'He can play. He can’t play.' I remember him doing it. He really liked Mike because Mike was the real deal."
After the 1990 season with Albany, Masters headed over to England to visit Mariner, who got him a trial with Ipswich. This was his chance to advance his career, get out of the ASL and find a playing environment that would enable him to get good enough to earn his shot at the Olympic team.
Ipswich wanted to sign him, but Masters hit a wall that had little to do with his playing ability. "This was the fall of 1990," he says, "and Europe was about to open up the free labor movement. The football union (The Professional Footballers Union, England’s football union) was particularly stringent around work permits." At the time, in order for a foreigner to play in any of England's top four leagues, "you had to be a national team player if you didn't have a parent or grandparent who was a citizen."
In today's top leagues, teams are made up of players from all around the world. But that's a fairly recent change. During Masters' era, it was a different story. Most leagues placed restrictions on the number of foreign players clubs could field.
"People don't realize how difficult it was to play in Europe," Wynalda said. "I even had issues just after I joined the national team." When Wynalda joined German club FC Saarbrucken in 1992, "There were only three foreigners allowed on the field at one time."
Those restrictions changed throughout the 1990's, particularly after the Bosman Ruling in 1995 that gave players at European clubs the freedom to move to any team in a European Union member country once their contracts ended.
Masters had no British relatives. The requirement of being a "national team player" is a rather vague one since national team rosters are a bit like Heraclitus' saying about rivers: You can never step in the same one twice. Still, Masters hadn't earned a cap for the U.S. men's national team and so Ipswich couldn't sign him.
But Masters didn't leave England. Another English club was interested in him: Colchester United, which had recently been relegated from the fourth division and was unencumbered by work permit requirements. In Colchester, a town of 100,000 people in Essex, Masters experienced a union between the fans and the team that he’d never seen in America.
"It is a much more involved fan experience than what is typical in the U.S.," noted Masters. "For Colchester, that's the team. That's the team that everyone supports. It's great when you win, not so good when you don't."
One memory that highlights that unique atmosphere stands out to Masters. During the 1991 FA Trophy competition, Colchester drew Reading for a home-and-away series. Reading played several divisions above Colchester but Colchester earned a draw at Reading. When they played at Layer Road, Colchester lost by a goal.
"The grounds all have bars in them," Masters says. "And the players after showering, cleaning up, go into the bar. Some fans were allowed."
After the Reading match, Masters was in the club bar with some teammates when a supporter approached them. "How can you guys lose?" the supporter said. "Don't you know how much it would have meant to the fans?"
Early in his time at Colchester, Masters faced the same stigma that came with being an American footballer in a European country. Masters said his teammates' reaction to him was: "Why does this Yank think he can play our game?"
He earned their respect by doing the thing he did best: score goals. "I went from being 'some Yank' to being 'our Yank.'" His teammates eventually called him "The Big Yank." He knew he'd won over the supporters when they started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" during matches.
Colchester finished the season in second place, but only the first-place team in The Conference earned promotion to The Football League. Because Masters hadn't signed a multi-year contract with Colchester, he went back to New York to play another season with the Capitals with no plans to return to England.
In the off-season, the club promoted Roy McDonough, another of the team's forwards, to player/manager. McDonough was infamous for his tendency to get ejected from games. His nickname was "Red Card Roy" due to the 22 red cards he earned throughout his career, the most ever by an English player. McDonough wanted Masters back at Colchester, so he returned to the team.
The '91-'92 season went well with United in contention for a "non-league double": The Football Conference championship and the FA Trophy. It headed into their final regular-season match against Barrow with The Conference championship in the balance; Masters scored his hat trick in the 5-0 victory and United took the title. A week later, Colchester was at Wembley, playing Witton Albion for the FA Trophy.
"It was incredible," Masters says of playing at Wembley. "Wembley is the place where the English national team plays, where cup finals are played, and playoffs. No home team plays there. It's obviously a beautiful field, beautiful stadium. An exclusive group gets to play there. That was a big deal for all of my teammates. For me, I didn't really get it at the time."
Ten minutes into the match, United earned a throw-in deep in Witton’s end. "We had a guy that could throw the ball far," Masters says. "We were setting up almost as if it was corner."
The throw-in soared to McDonough at the near post, who flicked it on, and Masters headed the ball in for a 1-0 lead. With that goal, he made history: the first American to score at Wembley Stadium.
United scored two more goals and their defense held firm as they beat Witton 3-1, won the FA Trophy and earned the non-league double. It was the greatest achievement in the club's history. The city planned a celebration to unite the town's fans with their beloved team. Three days after the FA Trophy victory, the team paraded down Colchester High Street atop an open-roof double-decker bus, waving flags and showing off their hardware while crowds mobbed the bus.
But Masters wasn't there. The day before the parade, he flew back to the U.S. as his other club, the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks, had a game that weekend that he didn't want to miss. That type of dedication, Wynalda says, is what made Masters such a special player.
"I think the other part that gets (lost) in all this with Mike is he had the right personality. He was a great teammate, he was a great guy to have in the locker room, he kept things loose." But when he got on the field, he was all business. "That's why Paul Mariner was willing to stick his neck out for him."
Masters was planning to return to Colchester, but the work visa problem reappeared: in winning the Football Conference, United earned a spot back in the Fourth Division.
Yet that summer, Bora Milutinovic called Masters into the U.S. National Team residency in Mission Viejo, Calif. Masters knew that earning a spot on the national team -- and getting his permit -- was a long shot. "Frankly," he says, "If I'm honest, when I was at my best, I was competitive and deserved to be there. When I was average, I didn't."
Masters wasn't called up to the '92 Olympic team but did earn his first cap for the U.S. on June 27, 1992 when he came on as a substitute in a draw against Uruguay. Ultimately, Milutinovic didn’t keep him in the team. Wynalda says the issue with Masters wasn’t his ability but that he didn’t fit into Milutinovic's style of play.
"Bora just wanted a small, darty forward that was just gonna constantly be mobile, constantly be moving, didn't need to be particularly good in the air, didn't need to hold the ball up." Basically, the complete opposite of Mike Masters. "He could hold off anybody," says Wynalda. "A lot like Brian McBride."
The single international cap that Masters earned wasn't enough to get him a work permit to play for Colchester. "The club clearly wanted me back. They said they were going to work with the Professional Footballer's Association."
But in the fall, the PFA said they weren't going to grant Masters a permit.
He played out the season with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks and then returned to England to play for recently formed Newberry Town. Newberry won its division and moved up a division to the tier below The Football Conference. Masters continued to play on both sides of the ocean: in 1993, Masters played for the Boston Storm in the USISL, then was traded to the Long Island Rough Riders, a team that included Tony Meola. The Rough Riders won the '95 USISL Championship but Masters began to see the opportunities for his playing career diminish.
"I was getting a little older, a little slower," Masters says. "There was not really the next step for me. Yeah, I could play Major League Soccer, but it was only going to be a couple of years."
So while playing a few more seasons with the Rough Riders, Masters went and got his MBA from DePaul University in Chicago. He now works as a director for Barclays in New York City.
"As far as that era goes," says Wynalda, "I think this happened a lot. A lot of guys fell through the cracks. Mike was one of the best of them. I have no doubt that in today's environment, a guy like Mike Masters would be playing somewhere in MLS and getting enough attention to get called into a national team."
Masters might have slipped through the cracks, but his success in England with Colchester is yet another instance of an American carving a path for the players who came after him: all those guys you watch every weekend, playing for well-known teams, scoring goals, making a name for themselves and continuing to spread the quality of American soccer throughout Europe.
Most of whom have probably never even heard of Mike Masters.
Andrew Lewellen (@AndyHLew) is a freelance writer who has written about soccer for Grantland, The New York Times, and other publications. He writes the weekly "Hold The Line" column for American Soccer Now.