Head Games

In 2014, local soccer legend Pablo Mastroeni returned to the Colorado Rapids to take over as coach and immediately led the team to one of its worst records ever. Now he has a plan that might just save the squad—if he and his players can only wrap their minds around it.
By Natasha Gardner
Photography by Benjamin Rasmussen
March 2015

For once, it’s not windy. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City is usually buffeted by gusts that race from the foothills toward the Eastern Plains, but on October 18, 2014, the flags at the seven-year-old soccer stadium hang limp. A teenager screeches out an awkward version of the national anthem on an electric guitar as the sparse crowd awaits the Colorado Rapids’ last home game of the year. The meager attendance is probably good; it means fewer people will notice that the kids hauling the oversized state flag off the field are dragging it along the ground.

The Rapids are set to face FC Dallas, an MLS rival coached by Óscar Pareja. Pareja was Colorado’s coach less than a year ago, but in a soap-operatic move, he absconded to Dallas, where he’d previously played and served as an assistant coach, just before the preseason. To say the defection created angst—from the players, the management, and the fans—would be an understatement. It doesn’t help that as they warm up for this contest, the Rapids are mired in a 14-match winless streak in a regular season that only comprises 34 games. The team is still struggling to settle into a starting 11 lineup (it will employ at least 30 variations by the end of the season). If there is an opposite of mojo, rhythm, and synergy, the 2014 Colorado Rapids embody it.

After the starters are introduced, a cannon booms, but the lack of wind leaves the smoke hovering over the field. Faintly visible through the haze is the person at the center of this dismal season: Pablo Mastroeni. After Pareja’s departure and the hasty vetting of a slim roster of candidates, Rapids president Tim Hinchey announced Mastroeni’s arrival as head coach—on the same day the MLS regular season started and barely a week before the Rapids’ first match.

He was a logical choice, if not an obvious one. Most MLS coaches have played in the league, and Mastroeni spent much of his career as a beloved Colorado midfielder, celebrated by fans for his forceful tackles. (He holds the league’s all-time record for yellow cards.) Having also played on the U.S. men’s national team for 65 matches, including two World Cup runs, Mastroeni is the Rapids’ version of soccer royalty. Conveniently for Hinchey and the organization, he’d just retired, hadn’t sold his Broomfield home, and was looking to get into coaching.

The trouble was, Mastroeni wasn’t a coach; he’d never even been an assistant. The sum total of his soccer teaching experience was a few course hours in college. Now, with literally no time cushion, he was charged with turning the wisdom he’d gleaned from his field time—more than 27,000 minutes in his professional career—into a strategic philosophy he’d have to impart to a roster of millennials. No one doubted he could learn; Mastroeni’s mental focus has always been unwavering. But how long would it take for him to command the knowledge and respect any coach must have? And would Kroenke Sports Enterprises (KSE), which also owns the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche and is the largest shareholder in the Arsenal franchise in the English Premier League, have the patience to let him find his style? “He overthinks things,” says Chris Bianchi, who covered the Rapids from 2012 to 2014 for mlssoccer.com before being fired. (In the days leading up to his ouster, Bianchi’s criticism of the team’s front office had drawn the ire of Hinchey and others.) “Does [a team] loving a coach translate to wins? It probably helps, but it’s not a surefire deal. Pablo has to figure things out.”

Now, as the cannon smoke clears, the five-foot-10-inch Mastroeni, still trim and fit, stands motionless in the coach’s box on the sideline. Wearing a burgundy cardigan and a dress shirt with a wide-stripe tie, he has his hands shoved into the pockets of his tan slacks, as if he’s forcing himself not to move. His tense jaw emphasizes the muscles in his neck; it looks as though he’s torn between wanting to jump across that line to play again and trying to figure out, as a coach, what the hell can be done. Overhead, a plane circles the field, hauling a sign that reads, “YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB KSE AND HINCHEY OUT.” The diehards in the crowd chuckle or holler in agreement—and then begin rumbling amongst themselves in what’s become a yearlong ritual: Was this lost season actually Mastroeni’s fault? Or is he the Rapids’ best chance to recover?

american soccer fans are a prickly lot. Like all sports fanatics, they’re well-versed in tactics and trades and timing. But in the early years of MLS, there simply weren’t enough of them. Plus, other sports can usually count on those who watch a few games a year “just because”; the fair-weather fans who buy jerseys for their kids and know the stars, but not much else. As an upside, the absence of these dilettantes at American soccer matches cuts down on the constant questions—Who’s that? Where is “offside”? What’s a red card?—meaning “real” fans can just focus on the game. However, it also results in emptier stadiums and lower revenues from hot dogs, beers, and souvenirs. During its first five years, MLS lost about $250 million as most of its teams played in echo chambers: massive football stadiums meant for bigger crowds.

The new league was having trouble capturing media attention, too. It became a running punch line for sports reporters who thought the game wasn’t red, white, and blue enough. In an effort to Americanize things, MLS implemented new rules, including a countdown clock at the end of each half and shootouts to avoid ties. The changes didn’t work; new fans still didn’t come, and soccer aficionados were livid about any attempt to change the “Beautiful Game,” as it’s known throughout the rest of the world. Six years in, the league shut down two franchises.

Mastroeni playing in the 2002 World Cup
Then the 2002 World Cup happened. A young U.S. squad, led by Landon Donovan, shocked everyone by advancing to the quarterfinals before losing to Germany. America’s preoccupation with all things football, basketball, and baseball temporarily shifted to soccer. And while that attention still tends to wane between World Cups, soccer has become one of America’s favorite sports: In a 2011 ESPN poll, for the first time, MLS was rated as more popular with 12- to 24-year-olds than MLB, the NBA, the NHL, and college football.

As MLS begins its 20th season of competition with two new teams—based in New York City and Orlando—MLS per-game attendance outranks the NBA and NHL. (Beginning in the late 1990s, the league wisely started building small, soccer-only stadiums such as Dick’s for many of its teams.) That hasn’t kept the league from continuing to act like the earnest new kid. Its players, coaches, and front office suits still default to the same rah-rah refrains: I just want to be an ambassador for the sport. We just want to show people how fun the game is. We just want to make soccer America’s game, too.

That inferiority complex is especially acute in Colorado. Broncos orange, of course, dominates now and forever, and our fans are still more apt to cheer for the Rockies, Nuggets, and Avs than trek the 10 miles from downtown Denver to see the Rapids play. The irony of this is that the Rapids franchise was a founding MLS team and won the title in 2010, making it Colorado’s most recent league champion of those major teams.

One of the leaders of that 2010 team—and a member of the 2002 World Cup’s Cinderella squad—was Pablo Mastroeni. Headstrong, proud, and persistent, he’s adored by long-timers, applauded by the Rapids’ current players, and utterly transparent. (He had to issue an apology to fans last year when he said he didn’t care about wins.) If anyone should be able to capture a broader swath of local fans, it’s Mastroeni, which is why the 38-year-old is either about to become Colorado’s soccer prophet or an abject disappointment.

mastroeni’s first memory is still perfectly clear. He’s four years old and sitting on a plane, staring out the window at blue lights on a Los Angeles International Airport runway. He’s got a massive stuffed gorilla to help him brave the turbulence and the newness of everything. He’s immigrating to America from Argentina with his parents and his younger brother. They’ll make their way to Phoenix to live with an uncle, aunt, and American cousins while they get settled in the new country.

“If you can dream,” his father said, “you can do it.” His father, Francisco, is a fiery man, half Sicilian, who works construction jobs that take him away from home for days or weeks at a time. Whenever Francisco is home between projects, young Pablo shows off new footwork or watches games—anything to get more time with his dad. His mom teaches kindergarten with nurturing optimism. On Sunday afternoons, the entire family—his maternal grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and all the cousins—gathers for a mashup of Italian and Argentinean cuisine with vats of pasta, bread, salads, and wine (the kids would get a sip mixed with Sprite).

Sometimes Mastroeni’s grandfather would talk about World War II: heroic tales about escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp and hopping a boat from Italy to Argentina. After the meals, the guys huddled around a TV watching some sport, usually soccer. Mastroeni still remembers sitting with his dad on a brown sofa in front of a small TV tuned to the 1986 World Cup and watching Argentina’s Diego Maradona and crew win the sport’s ultimate honor, thanks in part to Maradona’s contentious “hand of God” goal in a semifinal match. (Replays showed that the diminutive star punched the ball in with his fist rather than his head.) During the tournament, the elder Mastroeni asked his son: “Do you want to play in the World Cup?”

“Of course,” Pablo said.

“If you can dream,” his father said, “you can do it.”

Young Mastroeni learned to pick one player and obsessively watch him for a 90-minute match to learn his tactics. Then he’d try to mimic the moves. Off the field, he was cerebral, calm, and light-hearted, the kind of kid who got along with the jocks and the nerds and the stoners precisely because he made it seem like everyone was cool. But on the field, he was Mr. Hyde. He fought for balls; he fought for and with his teammates; he fought to prove to his dad that he could be better every day. He became so good at all of it that by the time he was a teenager, plenty of coaches were watching him.

Mastroeni was this animated even during international friendlies.
When Mastroeni was 15, he and his dad visited Argentina so he could train with Ferro Carril Oeste, a famed club in Buenos Aires. More than two decades later, what still sticks in his mind from that experience isn’t a coach, a match, or a play. It’s a pair of feet. During an open tryout, one kid showed up with tape wrapped around a pair of thong sandals: a makeshift pair of sneakers. Mastroeni couldn’t believe his peer’s desperation and dedication—all for a chance to play the game with a club that could make a career. From then on, soccer meant more, and Mastroeni knew he needed to be better. He returned to Arizona with focus. He was still the easygoing dude who partied with his brother and friends, but whenever his dad drove him to practice, the only thing that mattered was the Beautiful Game.

Although he couldn’t have known it then, this was also when Mastroeni would meet his future wife. Kelly Long was a 14-year-old classmate of his brother. She’d been halfheartedly seeing one of the boys’ friends when the friend asked Mastroeni to dump her by phone for him. He obliged, and when he told her, he asked, “You’re not going to cry?” She said no—and the two kept talking. As they chatted, Mastroeni asked his brother to grab a yearbook so he could see what she looked like, the ultimate perfunctory teenage move. “I guess he liked what he saw,” Kelly says now with a laugh. The two stayed on the line for about four hours that night and soon began dating.

After graduating from high school in 1994, Mastroeni landed a soccer scholarship at North Carolina State University. He went through the typical college adjustments (switching majors, missing family but loving his independence), all the while trying to figure out what was next. To play professionally, he’d probably have to head to Europe or Mexico. Although there had been talk of a new American professional soccer league since the late 1980s, the specifics were still elusive, leaving players like Mastroeni, who wanted to play at home, in logistical limbo.

Finally, in 1996, MLS launched with 10 teams and initially promising attendance figures. Although the next few seasons wouldn’t be quite as auspicious, Mastroeni saw his future. He fast-tracked the rest of his college courses by enrolling in a summer session and taking an extra load during the fall semester of his senior year so he’d be eligible for the league’s January draft. The challenge of getting America to become a soccer nation was just too enticing, and he used it again and again to motivate himself. “I love having an enemy,” Mastroeni says. “I make up things in my head, and it’s the biggest motivator in my life.”

before the 1998 college draft, the then-head coach of the Rapids, Glenn Myernick, invited Mastroeni to Colorado to train. The team still played at Mile High Stadium in front of crowds that were smaller than the ones that typically showed up to preseason Broncos scrimmages. At the practice field, players showered in frigid temporary trailers—makeshift locker rooms. “I wish you could capture that moment and give it to this generation of players coming through,” Mastroeni says. “If for nothing else, to understand, or at least to have a visual of what the guys before them, even before me, had to endure.”

The Miami Fusion drafted Mastroeni in the second round. As the team neared the roster cut-down date, the coach welcomed Mastroeni to stick around and train for a few more weeks but also made it clear that he wasn’t a lock to make the team. Mastroeni appreciated his honesty. Too often, players worked and worked only to be cut without feedback from the coach. If he was floundering, he wanted to know so he could fix it.

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Pablo's epic hair evolution.
Mastroeni’s unflappable certainty—the belief that if he thinks on something enough, it will happen—can be unnerving to others because it’s so intense. It also proved to be his most valuable skill as a player. Mastroeni knew he wanted to stay, which meant getting on the roster was a virtual certainty. He bunked on an inflatable mattress in a buddy’s apartment and kept training.

It paid off. On March 20, 1998, he was offered a contract for around $20,000 per season. As the last player the team chose to keep, he also was assigned jersey number 25. He chose the same number the following year and continued to wear it for much of his career to remind himself of his “enemy.” (His number, 25, is now displayed in the Rapids’ gallery of honor at Dick’s.)

In 1999, Kelly joined Mastroeni in Miami. She’d made plans to go to school and bunk there with a girlfriend. When her friend bailed, Mastroeni offered her a place with him and his roommates. His dad drove a U-Haul across the country with Kelly. “I moved into their four-bedroom house, and I’ve never had my own room again,” she says.

As his personal life blossomed, Mastroeni was still struggling on the field. Early on he was more of an offense-minded midfielder than a defender. He was a decent enough player, but attackers are expected to be the superstars who rack up goals and glory. Mastroeni had a niggling tendency to get overexcited and miss the net with his shots. Something wasn’t right, and he wasn’t surprised. Years earlier, a camp coach had told him that he was a more natural defender. The same coach also complimented Mastroeni’s technique and ferocity. Most importantly, Mastroeni had a natural ability to communicate. If he honed that skill, it could be more important than footwork or possessing a wicked shot. The proverbial “coach on the field,” Mastroeni would have the ability to direct traffic and slot people where they needed to be.

In his second year in MLS, Mastroeni put his ego aside and switched his focus to defense. It gave him a vantage point to assess, strategize, and defend. Even before a ball was thrown in, he was calculating how to turn it to his team’s advantage. Then, he’d use his fierce Mastroeni-ness to control it. He could finally do what he liked best: settle into a team mentality. “I became a communicator on the field,” he says. “It changed my life.”

And his career. Mastroeni quickly became one of the best midfield defenders in American soccer. In 2002, he was traded to the Rapids, around the same time he was earning a more expansive role with the U.S. men’s national team. When he stepped onto the field for the first game of the 2002 World Cup, he searched the stands to find his family (he and Kelly had married six months before). They were holding a massive “Dare to Dream” banner. Holy shit, he thought, remembering that 1986 World Cup game and his dad’s advice. It was worth it.

Pablo Being Pablo

When Mastroeni starts chatting about coaching, he can’t stop uttering one-liner slogans. Here, some of our favorite Pablo-isms.

“You’re not going to get better at anything in life if you only do it for a half hour a day.”

“As a coach, I don’t have any preference of who’s on the field. This is hard for people to understand. My preference, my responsibility is to the team.”

“My greatest moments have been achieved as a group. Anywhere in life.”

“We’re a team. We attack together and we defend together. We lose together and we win together.”

“It’s not about who you were or what you did; it’s about who you are and what you’re doing.”

“If you want to play here you’re going to want to be the best player in the world in your position. Whether or not you get there is irrelevant.”

this past fall, Mastroeni pauses in the Rapids’ suite. On one side is the team’s boot room, where rows upon rows of cleats hang neatly. Down a hallway is his office and a lounge area where the walls are covered by whiteboards filled with schedules and formations and players’ names. To a novice, it probably looks like calculus; to a fan, it looks like a game plan for recovery.

Drew Moor has played for (here, in a 2011 match), against, and with Mastroeni.
In a trainer’s room, defender and team captain Drew Moor is rehabilitating a torn ACL. His injury and a few others wreaked havoc, forcing Mastroeni to pull players from different positions into the back line and search for someone to fill Moor’s leadership void in the locker room. (Moor is a 10-year MLS veteran and played on the 2010 MLS Cup team with Mastroeni.)

Mastroeni is quick to take responsibility for the 2014 “cluster.” He says the Rapids’ roster would have benefitted from another veteran or two to provide leadership depth to his young squad. He also says his late arrival to the team meant he wasn’t able to implement as much mental training as his players would need. In short, he should have been able to do more. Mastroeni analyzes in an endless cycle of self-deprecation without ever appearing to be whiny or lacking confidence. He simply knows what he did poorly and what needs improvement.

He explains all this without pausing, as if he can’t be bothered to breathe. He often speaks like he played: measured but unrelenting. His nearly perfect sentences tumble out and over each other. Even when he corrects himself in the middle of a sentence, usually with the flicker of an eyelid, he does it precisely, as if he doesn’t want to disrupt the beauty of the phrase’s structure. It can be both exhausting and mesmerizing to listen to because each tirade contains so much information to unpack, digest, and implement. “It would have been easy for me as a first-year coach to place a lot of blame and make a lot of excuses throughout the course of this year,” he says. “The way I approached it is, ‘How can I use all this hardship to learn from it, to become a better coach, and to be the best coach I can possibly be?’ ”

As a young player, Mastroeni started keeping journals to log and evaluate his performance and motivate himself. Typical entries say things such as, You deserve to be on the field today, or, If you ever want to make it, you can’t go out to the clubs the night before and train like you did today. Now that he’s a coach, he’ll wake in the middle of the night to make notes on plays, tactics, and ideas about how to better communicate with his team. He’s obsessed with training’s mental aspect because it’s what made him successful. It came with a price: He often wound his mind so tightly during a match that he’d be too exhausted to speak afterward. His brain took just as long to recover as his body.

Although Mastroeni wants the same intensity from his players, he readily admits that the message didn’t translate into wins during his first year on the sideline. “I tell them, ‘For us to be amazing, to first be a good team, we have to all be thinking on the same lines,’ ” he says. “We’ll never have the Robbie Keanes of the world”—Keane is a veteran international superstar who’s finishing his career in Los Angeles, much like David Beckham did—“at our club. That’s just a truth of who we are as an organization. But we don’t necessarily need those players if, and only if, we can play as a unit. And playing as a unit means never tuning out for a single second during the game.”

That laser focus was his legacy as a player, so it’s natural that he’d carry it over to coaching. It’s what he thinks young American players need to embrace if U.S. soccer is ever to become a more dominant international force. “American kids, for the most part, have their social lives and then they have soccer as the sport they play,” Mastroeni says. “In the rest of the world, their social lives are a byproduct of soccer, the sport they play. That’s where the disconnect is.”

When Mastroeni was 15 years old in Argentina, practicing with a kid in sandals, he realized he’d need to do more than train hard. Plenty of athletes were as good as he was, or better. His advantage was playing smarter, being the best-trained brain on the field. If he can help young American players do that, to emulate what he did mentally on the pitch, the sport here could change. “We’re making strides,” Mastroeni says. “It’s impossible to change a culture overnight. It’ll probably be in the next 10 to 15 years.”

The Beautiful Game demands that a player gives so much mentally that the individual ceases to exist. Each player is but one part of 11 people moving the ball toward one goal and away from the other. There is no cessation. No time-out. No room for a mental lapse. Mastroeni has always given his mind to the game—and it almost cost him dearly.

kelly was worried—make that scared. She was watching on October 14, 2011, when her husband went to head a ball, just as he’d done a dozen times a game for more than a dozen seasons. This time, though, when Mastroeni leaped, he knocked heads with another player and fell, clutching his short black hair in pain.

The resulting concussion sidelined Mastroeni immediately and indefinitely, which raised impatient questions. When will I be back? How extensive is the damage? What can I do? As is typical with traumatic brain injuries, the answers were vague. “The worst part of concussions is not knowing,” Mastroeni says. “Not knowing if you’re ever going to be normal again.” Thanks in part to massive media attention surrounding NFL players’ concussions, other sports, including soccer, have adopted concussion protocols for injured players. Soccer players—who may endure thousands of headers during their careers—are susceptible to long-term damage. Healing from a soccer-related concussion can be especially tricky because symptoms from the injury can dramatically differ from one patient to the next.

For Mastroeni, the nausea, exhaustion, and pain were easier to handle than the anxiety. Kelly was used to her husband’s insomnia and occasional panic attacks. After the concussion, though, his personality shifted. Gone was the laid-back, guitar-strumming dad. He was moody, apprehensive, angry, and bitter. He’d snap at Kelly and their two kids. If she’d known him for less time, maybe she wouldn’t have noticed as much, but Kelly was certain something was very wrong.

“The worst part of concussions is not knowing...if you’re ever going to be normal again.” In calmer moments between the headaches and raging, Mastroeni saw it, too. A routine trip to a grocery store left him incapacitated from the bright lights. He’d sleep when he could, or just lie somewhere quiet so he could plead with his brain to stop hurting. He wasn’t keen on overmedicating, so with the help of his medical team, he added psychotherapy, meditation, and journaling to his rehabilitation routine, a whole-body attempt to shift his mind back into order.

On bad days, he’d roll out a meditation mat, write, and talk to his therapist. On good days, he’d do the same, only more of it. The regimen helped, but his moods—particularly his aggression and despair—still persisted. One night, he started to obsess about a chemical from the family’s fish tank he thought he might have inhaled by accident that was now making him sick. Kelly knew it was gibberish, and she told him so.

“It’s not going to kill you,” she said.

“Maybe it would be better if it did.”

She immediately called his therapist.

That’s where Mastroeni found unexpected relief. During one session, he recalled a childhood memory. He was five years old and sitting outside when he heard his mother shriek inside the house. She came out carrying the lifeless body of Francisco Jr., his infant brother—dead from SIDS. The tragedy devastated everyone, and Pablo’s world tipped; adults who had been so sturdy and stoic were suddenly so fragile.

In therapy, Mastroeni realized he’d buried that trauma—and its unyielding grief—deep in his brain. He’d wrapped it up in a parcel so tightly that for years afterward, he knew he’d lost a brother but couldn’t conjure up the images. He’d never connected his bouts of anxiety to what happened to his brother, even after his own son, Luca, arrived in 2005. When the child was an infant, Mastroeni would hover over his crib in the middle of the night and rest a hand on his baby’s belly—just to make sure he was still breathing. He worried that something would happen to Luca or his daughter, Giuliana (now seven). Kelly says it went beyond normal parental concern. Recovering the memory of his brother’s death in therapy helped him make sense of it. It gave Mastroeni—and his mind—a bit of peace, enough to start rebuilding and reorganizing his thoughts.

As hard as the concussion recovery was—although Mastroeni’s physical symptoms dissipated after about four months, it would take a full year for his head to feel right again—he refuses to see it as a negative experience. “My whole life is about silver linings,” he says. “Obviously, it sucks to have concussions. But are you going to pity yourself? Are you going to lock yourself into a dark room? Those are things I was doing. Bitter toward the universe. None of that stuff promotes growth. It’s all destructive. It’s all an implosion of the soul.”


in his office this past fall, Mastroeni slouches on a couch, staring at a whiteboard and stroking his mustache. The facial hair is a new thing. (“The mustache is Pablo the coach,” says Chris Sharpe, a former teammate who now coaches the Rapids’ goalkeepers.) Kelly thought it resembled a caterpillar at first, but it just might stay because it helps distinguish him from Pablo the player.

Although that distinction is critical, it’s unclear if it’s more important to the players or the coach. Mastroeni frequently wears cleats but avoids running around on the field unless he needs to demonstrate a technique, and he usually carries a whistle at practice. Even so, in every game this season, there seemed to be a moment when he wanted to charge onto the field and direct things. Instead, he’s stuck in the coach’s box, often pacing and, just as often, yelling. “His passion on the pitch is still so great,” Hinchey says, adding with a wry aside: “We need to make sure he’s not yelling at the fourth official so much.”

Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Ellwood / Colorado Rapids
Pablo the coach is just as fierce as Pablo the player. Hinchey applauds Mastroeni for being the first to raise his hand and accept blame for last season’s dismal results (the Rapids finished 8-18-8). “He’s a very cerebral guy,” Hinchey says. “He’s also incredibly self-deprecating.” It’s a refrain the players repeat: “He’s got a lot of stuff going on in his head, and that’s a good thing,” Moor says. “I wouldn’t want to be playing for anyone else.”

Some missteps even Mastroeni can’t explain. In 2014 he constantly tweaked his lineup, which included temporarily yanking goalkeeper Clint Irwin, who’s been mentioned as a possible successor to Tim Howard on the national team. (Irwin’s Rapids replacement keepers fared miserably.) Mastroeni parried the criticism by characteristically refusing to isolate the performance of individual players and to instead focus on the team. Even now he’s elusive about it, and Irwin remains professional. “No player is going to be happy when they are put on the bench,” Irwin told me. “But Pablo came and explained his reasoning for it. Maybe I didn’t agree with that, but it was important to think about how it affected the team.”

With that statement, Irwin affirms Mastroeni’s coaching philosophy. He doesn’t need players to like him, but he’s always striving to maintain their respect. He wants them to see him as honest and consistent, qualities he’s always admired in coaches. He obsesses about that, and about the Team (capital “T”); if Mastroeni had a choice, jerseys wouldn’t have names. He’d never have to answer reporters’ questions about this player versus that player. He could step back and see everything as one unit and ignore wins versus losses. “I’m not a results guy because I know if you do all the little things right, you should get the results,” Mastroeni says. “I’m not into, ‘Let’s just win.’ Well, everyone is trying to do that. What are you doing? What’s the core, what’s the essence of what you’re trying to do as a group?”

He knows it will take time to form that identity. He also knows there’s a deadline for getting more wins on the board. If 2015 unfolds anything like 2014 did, how long will he last? That’s partly why Mastroeni didn’t stop during the offseason. He traveled to England to watch former teammate Aitor Karanka coach. He attended an intensive coaching course along with colleagues from across MLS, and he called it “one of the hardest weeks I’ve had to endure as a coach or a player.” While coaches don’t need licenses, MLS probably will implement some coursework for a certification by 2016, and Mastroeni wants to be ahead of the classes.

He constantly stares at the whiteboards in his office, as if he can will the players and the pieces to come together just by thinking on them. He forged a stellar career by doing this on the field; now it’s time for him to do it from the sideline. “The hope is that they [want soccer] to be their craft,” he says. “They breathe it and they smell it and they understand that this career is finite. It won’t last forever, and you may not even fully understand these words until the day you’re no longer here, you’re no longer playing, or you have to hang them up. That’s the day you reflect.”

Six home games to watch in 2015

March 21 vs. New York City Football Club

Why: The home opener, against one of the league’s brand new teams. Plus, it can snow during March matches, which makes for entertaining play (see the 2013 U.S. versus Costa Rica matchup at Dick's).

April 18 vs. Seattle Sounders FC

Why: One of the strongest franchises in the league with a travelling (or transplanted) fan base. Bonus: It is a chance to see forward Clint Dempsey play at altitude.

June 19 vs. FC Dallas

Why: This is the third and final matchup of these teams (pending playoffs) and will be a good time to assess how Mastroeni’s team is growing over the season. Oh, and Dallas’ coach used to be the Rapids coach, so crowd chants should be interesting.

July 4 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Why: The game, of course, but the fireworks show after the 90-minute match is the draw; pick up tickets early before they sell out.

August 1 vs. LA Galaxy

Why: The coach is a legend, Steven Gerrard (of Liverpool fame) should be playing, and the team is the 2014 league champion.

October 3 vs. Real Salt Lake

Why: The third matchup between these rivals, and hopefully the deciding game of the Rocky Mountain Cup. (Infamously, after the Rapids won the 2006 Rocky Mountain Cup, Mastroeni stuffed his shirt down his shorts and taunted the opposing fans.)


Natasha Gardner is a 5280 senior editor. Email her at letters@5280.com and follow her on Twitter.