[PROFILE] A mainstay of the U.S. team since his debut in 2001, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni faded out of the picture last year. So he set aside his national team career and helped propel Colorado to its first playoff appearance in four years.
At the start of the season, Mastroeni made a promise to himself.
For the first time in nearly a decade, he’d start an MLS season with the burdens and expectations of juggling club play and the U.S. national team. He’d not been notified by Coach Bob Bradleyabout his exclusion from the program, but once the realization sunk in, he vowed to channel everything he had to give into the Colorado Rapids.
“In terms of dialogue there wasn’t any,” he said last February. “Bob has his idea of what he wants in those positions, and obviously the young player is what he wants. Our dialogue was completely cut off after a qualifier at home here last year. I haven’t talked to him since. I was having some issues in my personal life as well, and it all kind of happened.”
He earned the last of his 65 caps against Honduras in June of last year. Since then, nothing. “That’s the way life goes,” he said. “Sometimes you want answers and you just get more questions. I have this season in front of me and it’s important for me and my club that we get into the playoffs.”
Mission accomplished, and then some. Colorado got a goal from Mastroeni to beat the Crew, 1-0, in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and endured a nerve-wracking 2-1 loss in Columbus last weekend to force penalty kicks. Ten attempts later, the Rapids had reached the penultimate stage imbued with the belief that nothing is beyond them.
In a teleconference call on Tuesday the 34-year-old midfielder said, “And for me this year, it's been the year where it's probably been the most realistic feat, and you know, in the years past, where we have reached the playoffs, there's always been a little bit of doubt for: ‘Do we belong here; did we do enough to get here.’ And I think this year, there's no question in my mind or anyone's mind in this club, that believed that we shouldn't be here, and now the fact that we are here, we have to do something with it.”
Mastroeni, who started his career with Miami in 1998, has played on eight playoff teams, including five in Colorado. The Rapids are in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 after narrowly missing out the past two seasons when they couldn’t get the required result in the season finale against Real Salt Lake. Both times, the teams that edged out Colorado – New York in 2008, RSL last year – reached MLS Cup.
“When you make the playoffs every year it seems like an easy thing to achieve,” he says. “When you don’t make it a couple of years in a row, you think, ‘Jeez.’ You have to have a lot of things go right at the right time in the season.”
Coach Gary Smith began his renovations last January by getting Jeff Larentowicz and Wells Thompson from New England in a trade.
“I thought we need some toughness in midfield to complement Pablo’s ability,” says Smith. “Pablo had never been offered the opportunity to join in, to create and score goals, as much as he has this year. He’s such a talented player I knew that if he had somebody alongside that he trusted to hold the fort, if you like, I thought he would express himself more.”
Mastroeni didn’t erupt offensively. In the regular season he scored twice and assisted on three other goals; Larentowicz actually got four goals. Other stats reveal how the pairing paid off, especially the 13-10-7 record (46 points), good for seventh overall via a tiebreaker with San Jose, which the Rapids host Saturday in the conference final.
Working as a conduit between defense and attack, Mastroeni moves the ball through the middle third to the attacking corps and occasionally, as against Columbus, gets into the scoring zone. The duo of Larentowicz and Mastroeni has matured into one of the best tandems in MLS.
“It’s been a wonderful partnership,” says Smith. “At the beginning there were a couple of little teething problems but their relationship has blossomed and they certainly looked much more fluid in their play. They’re both very capable at both ends of the field and good athletes. Why shouldn’t I expect them to be a very good pair in the middle?”
For Mastroeni, who played in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, reaching his first MLS Cup might make up somewhat for missing out on 2010. What it means for his club and his teammates, though, means a lot more.
“For me, it would be a great milestone,” he said in the conference call, “but more importantly it would be great for all of the hard work that we have dedicated to the cause from game one in preseason to where we find ourselves today.”