Opportunity knocks for Mastroeni

Judging from the way Pablo Mastroeni stormed around the training fields at American University on Tuesday morning, he appeared more like a national team neophyte just trying to make the traveling roster than a starting player from the last World Cup who has played 30 times for the USA over the past four years.

Though injuries and the oddest of circumstances (Colorado Rapids coach Tim Hankinson holding him out of the first Grenada qualifier) have been at the root of the Rapids midfielder's absence from all but five of the USA's 12 matches in 2004, Mastroeni does feel like a player who needs to prove himself all over again to Bruce Arena.

"It's still always a privilege to be called in, but at the end of the day you have to perform," said the 28-year-old midfielder. "There is no right of passage to be here. Just because you have been on the team before or are a good player in MLS doesn't mean you don't have to prove yourself and stake a claim."

Mastroeni last appeared for the U.S. in the 1-1 draw against Poland back on July 11. A strained quadriceps muscle has kept him out of the three qualifying matches since then. Since Claudio Reyna (quadriceps) and Chris Armas (knee) are unavailable due to injury, Mastroeni may get a shot at playing as the team's holding midfielder as he did so well in the 2002 World Cup. The only thing in his way might be the emergence of Kansas City Wizards midfielder Kerry Zavagnin, who started in the central midfield for the U.S. when they played El Salvador last month in Foxborough, Mass.

On Tuesday, Arena said Mastroeni brings a bit more aggressiveness to the field and is a better ball-winner than Zavagnin. However, he did allude to the fact that Mastroeni hasn't played the holding midfielder role exclusively with the Rapids this year, as he has been forced to play as a central defender on many occasions. That could result in Mastroeni coming off the bench or playing in a dual holding midfielder role with either Zavagnin or Tony Sanneh should Arena utilize a 4-4-2 system with a box midfield behind two strikers.

Whether or not Mastroeni starts or sees a minute of time during the upcoming two-game stretch that starts on Saturday night in Estadio Cuscatlan in San Salvador, he gives Arena a veteran option to turn to and an additional voice in the locker room.

After several years of being a player who was happy with just blending in with the guys, Mastroeni has blossomed into a respected leader and someone the younger players on his teams can turn to for advice both on and off the field. Most recently, he was given the captain's armband from teammate John Spencer. Since the Scottish striker is retiring from MLS at the end of the season, he was in essence giving the keys to the car to Mastroeni after being the team's definitive leader for the past four seasons.

Mastroeni felt it was an even more touching gesture considering it came at such a critical time for his club and from a player he has long admired.

"It really does mean something to me because it's coming from a guy who is probably one of the more honest MLS players who I've played with," he said. "His experience speaks for itself. It's quite a privilege and an honor to accept the armband from him. He's still carrying on a leadership role, though. It's an innate role that he carries within himself and he portrays it really well, so it's a privilege to take the baton from him and carry the team into the playoffs and hopefully get a result once we're there."

Forecasting how his Rapids will do is an impossible task. At times in 2004, Colorado has looked like Joe Cannon and the Pips, surviving matches due to the outstanding play of its goalkeeper. At other times, it has looked like one of the more dynamic teams in the league, playing attractive soccer and getting some beautiful goals by Jean-Philippe Peguero and inspired play by undrafted rookie Jordan Cila.

Of course, there was also the rarest of times when the Rapids looked like an over-30 squad unable to string more than two or three passes together in the 6-1 shellacking it suffered by the New England Revolution on Sept. 18. It was after that match that Colorado had a spirited players-only team meeting on the way back to Denver that ultimately ended up with Mastroeni emerging as the team captain. Since then, Hankinson's side performed much
better in a 1-0 loss to Kansas City on the road and nearly downed the San Jose Earthquakes last weekend if not for an 82nd-minute strike by Dwayne De Rosario.

Mastreoni makes no bones about how tough the season has been for his team and how it's been a learning process throughout. But he is optimistic now that clinching for the playoffs is out of the way and the new life of the playoffs will soon be upon them.

"It's been an up and down year for us," he said. "That loss in New England really woke us up off of a nice streak. But we've worked really hard all season to be in this position and get into the playoffs. We're clicking now, and I think we have the players and the mindset to go in and make a great run for the (MLS) Cup. That's the key to the playoffs -- to be on fire at the right time.

"I think something we've learned in the last few weeks is that we have very good depth on our team with players who make the best of it when given the opportunity. It's a chance for guys to come in and make a claim for themselves."

In a way, that's what Mastreoni is looking for over the next 10 days with the national team. A chance. The same one he got and ran with in the winter and spring of 2002 with strong performances in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and in friendly matches that led to three starts in the World Cup after not appearing in a single qualifying match for the U.S. in the run up to the tournament.

"This week gives me a good opportunity to fine-tune some things and get myself ready again to play at the international level, which is a lot different than MLS," said Mastroeni. "I'm ready for the challenge."

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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