By Ridge Mahoney
While he was recovering from post-concussion issues a year ago, Pablo Mastroeni referred to his extended layoff from competitive soccer as a “journey within a journey.”
Fortunately, his journey through life continues, yet another journey is over. Mastroeni, 37, has announced his retirement, ending a 16-year professional career that followed a trip from his Mendoza, Argentina, birthplace to a childhood in Arizona, college days at N.C. State, and more than 300 MLS appearances for Miami, Colorado and Los Angeles.
“I have decided that now is the time to step away from the game as a player,” Mastroeni said in a statement. “I would like to thank all my friends and family, especially my mother, father and brother for helping me pursue this dream, my wife Kelly for all of her understanding, and my kids, Luca and Giuliana, for making me realize what is bigger than soccer.”
Months of recovery and rehabilitation provided him with ample time to ponder those bigger things life away from the playing field. He spent more time with his family, of course, and found enjoyment working with children, either coaching them on the field or just conversing. He worked a few TV broadcasts of Rapids games. He took trips to Native American reservations to help kids. He stayed connected to the game while all the time wondering if he could ever play it again at the top level.
“It was a journey to recover and get well, but it was also a journey of self, trying to define who you are: Am I a soccer player?’” he said in January of this year. “I’m also a father and a friend and I like to teach and coach. For me, it was like I had to fill a void that was always occupied by soccer. I was training kids for free in the neighborhood on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, just to see if I would enjoy it.”
Mastroeni had attained the dream of most soccer players by wearing the U.S. jersey, starting with his debut in 2001. He’d had to wait a few years; his first callup, as a teenager, led to frustration, since as a native of Argentina he didn’t readily qualify for U.S. citizenship. Then-national team coach Bruce Arenacalled him into camp less than a month after he’d cleared that hurdle. He went on to play 65 times for the USA, including five World Cup matches in 2002 and 2006.
“This is a true vindication of everything that's right about American soccer,” said commentator Ray Hudson, his coach in Miami, of that first selection in June, 2001. “It sends a great message that you’ll be rewarded if you play well. And for everyone who knows Pablo and loves him, it’s good for us, because he’s where he belongs.”
In his nearly 400 appearances in MLS and for the USA, Mastroeni melded the hard, tough tackling of a defensive mid and the poised touch of a playmaker. Whether deployed in central midfield or centerback, he could command his area and always bore the threat of dribbling, battling, or passing his way out of tight situations. His role varied; he played with Kyle Beckerman and a cast of veterans on the Fusion, and they also paired up for the Rapids until roster changes altered his role yet again.
He captained Colorado to the 2010 MLS Cup as part of a dynamic midfield partnership with Jeff Larentowicz, who buttressed the middle while Mastroeni probed for attacking opportunities. As the jubilant Rapids sprayed the walls and floor of their locker room with beer and champagne, Mastroeni laughed and joked euphorically. Yet a few days later set in a strange malaise.
“I’ve said in the past, I’ve woken up after MLS Cup, and felt completely empty after winning the thing I’ve been chasing my whole life in this league,” he said. “There’s a point in people’s careers you achieve what you want and you wake up and think, ‘Really this is it?’
“Five days after winning the cup, after the celebration we had here in Denver, life went on per usual. For me, it was almost like I wanted the excitement and butterflies to go on forever after winning this thing I’ve been chasing my whole life. You realize that just reaching and attaining goals isn’t necessarily all of it, there’s got to be more.”
Playing alongside former Argentine international Claudio Lopez broadened his perspective. Signed as a Designated Player in 2008 by Kansas City, in MLS Lopez had failed to replicate his form for his national team and glamorous European clubs such as Valencia, Lazio and Club America. After being traded to the Rapids, he inspired Mastroeni by working as if the club’s fortunes rode on his shoulders.
“He didn’t to play a lot and his contributions weren’t seen and never spoken about, but he was one of the driving forces that kept all the guys honest,” said Mastroeni, who credits a strong team spirit for Colorado’s only MLS title. “He’d come in and work every day, knowing he wasn’t playing a whole lot and it could be his last year. He just came in every day with a positive attitude and played hard.
“I remember looking at him and with everything he’s done in his career for him to accept his position was pretty remarkable. I kind of adopted that same mindset when I was working my way back just to get into training.”
Concussions near the end of the 2011 season and at the start of 2012 sidelined him. He tried to come back a couple of times but searing headaches and severe dizziness sent him back to the doctors for extensive tests -- “one of them took eight hours” -- and more rest.
“The psychological stuff started having an impact on me,” he said. “I did the protocol to come back probably in June/July, and I couldn’t get over the fear of getting hit in the head again, so I backed off. I went back out there again near the end of the summer and actually had a panic attack out there on the field.”
Off the field, though, he found some fulfillment while wondering if his playing days had ended. “I found that out last year, whether it was after-school programs or these kids during the summer, going to the reservation and seeing their interest in soccer and seeing that they want it and need just a bit more resources and someone who cares and wants to give up their time.”
Now he will have time for more personal growth and a clear perspective of how to use it. He felt healthy and strong at the start of the 2013 season, but like several other veteran players, couldn’t crowbar himself into a lineup packed with young players.
He started five of seven games for Colorado, which after he spoke to head coach Oscar Pareja traded him to the Galaxy for a draft pick and an international roster slot. He played nine games (three starts) in the regular season and didn’t feature in the playoffs.
Once renowned for his long dreadlocks -- he and Beckerman made quite a pair in the Colorado midfield -- and occasional recklessness, Mastroeni trimmed his hair and cut down on his careless fouls, such as the infamous one that earned him a red card in the 2006 World Cup. He retires as Colorado’s leader in several categories, an MLS champion, and a stellar example of how the game rewards those who are worthy.