By Paul Kennedy
It's half an hour after the Colorado Rapids' preseason game has ended, and Tucson fans are milling around before the start of Saturday's third game at the Desert Diamond Cup.
The North Stadium at the Kino Sports Complex is new since last season, and fans are checking out the concessions. The Cactus Pricks -- the hometown FC Tucson supporters group -- are selling scarves, a vendor is selling beer and shots out of a cooler, and a food shack is offering chicken kebabs and Sonoran dogs, both topped with homemade sauces.
Right at home in the crowd is Rapids' Pablo Mastroeni talking with a group of high school buddies. His title is special assistant to the technical director, but he's been coaching the Rapids in preseason until they make a decision about a head coach.
Mastroeni was raised up the road in Phoenix. His parents have come down to see him, as have the group of high school buddies. He also has local ties, having played in the summer during his playing days at N.C. State for the Tucson Amigos, who date way back to the days of the SISL. Old acquaintances come up to greet him. A mother comes up and asks if he'll have his photo taken with her son. Mastroeni introduces himself to her son: "Hi, I'm Pablo." And the boy smiles embarrassingly as his mom snaps a picture.
If Mastroeni knows what his future lies with the Rapids, he isn't letting on, but he is at ease as he talks about his job as he finally makes his way back the Rapids' locker room in the huge complex that is the preseason headquarters of the five MLS teams encamped in Tucson through next weekend.
"The way I've handled this whole thing is," he says about his interim tag, "I'm going to be the coach until I'm told otherwise, and I made that very clear with the group. In order to have the commitment, that is the message that has to be reiterated. I said that the first day, and I haven't had to say that again."
The Rapids are Mastroeni's first pro coaching job, just two months removed from his 16th and final playing season in MLS. There is still a lot of the player in Mastroeni as he talks about preseason, his coaching philosophy and his young Rapids team that was one of the surprises in MLS last season but lost its head coach when Oscar Pareja returned to FC Dallas in January.
"You never know what a player is capable of unless you give him a shot," he says. "I think you are seeing guys who being given a second opportunity or third opportunity or in fact their first opportunity, and that is what preseason is all about for the coach."
Now on the coaching side, he's learning all the little nuances of running a team and of game preparations and what it means to indeed give all his players a chance. "You've opened a can of worms," he says.
Mastroeni didn't go into coaching blindly. He says he studied all the coaches he's had and tried to learn from them. "The most important aspect of being a manager is to give everyone a fair shake," he says, "and get them to understand that, and not just say it, but do it."
Gary Smith was the Rapids head coach when Mastroeni captained the club to the 2010 MLS title. He says he learned a lot from Smith about organizing a team even if he didn't always agree with his philosophy. "He could paint a very clear picture of what he wanted," he said.
Mastroeni has also learned from Bruce Arena, who gave him his big chance at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and took him to Germany four years later and had him for the last part of his final MLS season. Mastroeni describes Arena as a "man manager," who made the player the most important element in the game and got the best out of the players he had. The common thread to the qualities he's admired in his coaches is communication.
"That is the all we want to know," he says, "as human beings, let alone players or in whatever profession you so choose, is where we stand, what your expectations are and to get on the same page."
Mastroeni is reminded of the irony of what he's just said. "It is very ironic," he says. He's been coaching the Rapids for four weeks and he still doesn't know if he'll be coaching them on a permanent basis or if someone else will be brought in as head coach. When does he hope to know?
"Obviously, the sooner, the better," he says. "But again, it is not my concern. I will be with the organization regardless of the position. I am very excited to be here. It is very ironic and more reason for me to be very clear with the fellows and make sure the lines of communication are in fact there. It's so cliche the door's always open, but there are no doors in my office. I'm in the same room with these guys. There are no levels between the staff and players. It is important as we move forward regardless of my role that they know I am 100 percent committed to the cause."
For now, Mastroeni is only worried about what he can control ahead of the Rapids' opener March 15 at New York.
"What is in my control," he says, "is making sure these guys want to work hard for each other and understand the philosophy we've instilled as a staff and most importantly enjoy themselves as they bring out the best every day."