As part of his recurring series of interviews on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
This week, Bradley spends some time with Pablo Mastroeni, who announced his retirement on Tuesday after 16 seasons in MLS. Mastroeni, 37, will be remembered mostly for the 12 seasons he spent with the Colorado Rapids, the team he led to an MLS Cup title in 2010, but began his career with the Miami Fusion and appeared in two World Cups for the US national team.
BRADLEY: How tough a decision was this to retire, and how do you feel about it?
MASTROENI: I think it was a lot easier decision vs. having to end it last year, with the concussion situation. That would have left a terrible taste in my mouth. It was still a difficult decision until the end and it had me contemplating, telling myself, "I feel great." But I asked myself, "Why do I want to keep playing? What more can I achieve? What's the next milestone?" To be fair, there weren't many.
I really love the game and always believe you can keep learning and improving. But I was living in LA and my family was back in Colorado and that made it easier to say that was a great time to hang 'em up and spend some time with my kids, who are six and eight, and there's only so many years you can influence them. I've been playing since I was five, but I had something bigger to come back to, and that made it easier.
BRADLEY: How would you like to be remembered as a player?
MASTROENI: I think I'm just a player that brought it every day, to training and games. A player that competed every day, but also enjoyed the social aspect of the game. The locker room, to me, was always a brilliant place where I could express myself and build some camaraderie. I really relished being a locker-room guy and all that came with that. So, I'd like to be remembered as a guy who came in every day and tried to raise everyone's level.
BRADLEY: Your experience with the Miami Fusion ended kind of abruptly. It took a while to build something and then in 2001, you were on one of the best teams in league history. What are your memories of that team?
MASTROENI: For me, it was one of the most fun teams I've ever been a part of. We played possession in Miami. We'd have the ball for literally three or four minutes at a time, which is kind of an anomaly these days. I remember going to the national team and being in camps and the ball would turn over after six or seven passes, and I just couldn't believe the technical ability of that 2001 team.
It was so much fun, and to see it go was a big disappointment. God only knows how good that team and that organization could have been if we'd had a couple more years to build it.
BRADLEY: A year later, you found yourself on the World Cup team. Not only on the roster, but thrust into a starting role in the opening game when Claudio Reyna was injured. What was that experience like for you?
MASTROENI: The Gold Cup happened [in 2001] and I was playing center back, and I had a good tournament and there were three or four more friendlies before Bruce Arena had to put together his final roster. And to this day it's funny because, when he selected me for that team, it wasn't for anything soccer-wise. He liked that I was coming to practice every day and pushing the guys hard, and he thought on a 23-man roster, you need good people in the locker room.
He didn't even mention my soccer ability, and then, unfortunately, Claudio goes down before that Portugal game and there was an opportunity. The rest is kind of history. Just talking about it gives me goose bumps.
BRADLEY: On the flipside of that euphoria, there's 2006 and the bitterness of getting sent off against Italy. Is that something that you've thought about often, the way that World Cup ended for you?
MASTROENI: I had a hard time with that for maybe six months after it occurred. You're probably the first person I've ever told this, but after I got the red card, I was so beside myself that I remember shaking uncontrollably and crying. Because of the magnitude of the situation and the implications of the team moving forward. I remember being in the coaches’ locker room for the whole second half, shaking. I couldn't believe it. I remember our assistant coach Curt Onalfo coming back there to check on me and settle me down. He stayed with me and told me, "It's a team thing." But it was hard for me to accept.
But when I got home, I had time to reflect and I took that moment and learned a lesson. Leaving your feet in the game of soccer, for any reason, has to be calculated with precision. There's no room for error. And I think that's why some of the best defenders in the world never leave their feet. They're always in good position. From that moment on, my yellow cards and definitely red cards went down tenfold.
BRADLEY: You do retire as MLS's all-time leader in yellow cards, but I guess that comes with the territory for a defensive midfielder and the longevity of your career.
MASTROENI: When you're breaking up plays, you're going to find yourself in compromising situations. As you get more experience, you learn to put yourself in better positions. When you're young, you run more to make up for your decisions. But, with that said, if a defensive midfielder is winning Fair Play awards, there's probably somebody else behind him doing the dirty work.
BRADLEY: Is there one player in the league right now who you really enjoy watching?
MASTROENI: From my last days in Colorado, I really enjoyed watching Dillon Powers play. I think he's very technical, has a huge frame, understands the game really well, has great vision. I'm really excited to see his career unfold, not only for the Rapids but also for the US national team in the future.
BRADLEY: How about your good friend and former teammate Kyle Beckerman? What's it been like to see his ascent in recent years since he moved from Colorado to Salt Lake?
MASTROENI: I think Kyle has been one of the best defensive midfielders, if not the best, in the league for many years now. He flies under the radar a lot, but he's on the screen now. It can be tough in this league. A lot of times, you go out and do your job and you don't get the media backing or the press and you can wonder why you're doing all this. But he's stuck with it. He's proven he's a class player and I'm excited to see him with the national team. I think he's got a lot of years left in his tank. We've been buddies since he was 16 or 17 and I've seen him grow. He's the guy I'm probably closest to that I've played with.
BRADLEY: Got a least favorite guy to play against?
MASTROENI: Peter Nowak is a guy I didn't like going up against. Part of that was my inexperience working against me. I remember being an overzealous defender, going after the ball and Peter, with all his experience and that energy moving forward, he was such a wily player. And not to mention he was really strong and really fast. He was one of those guys I knew, when we played against his Chicago teams, I'd be in for a game.
BRADLEY: When you were experiencing those concussion problems a few years ago, the Rapids basically said you had a job with them as soon as you were ready. Is that where you're headed?
MASTROENI: I think I'd really like to start some kind of soccer school. We as a nation have the most resources of any country, yet we continue to look abroad to find answers. I think the answers are right in front of us. Everyone's talking about player development and my view is that, while we develop players, we do it in a way where results are overly important, for various reasons. I've been thinking about putting something together that solely focuses on the development of the player.
I don't care if we're losing 100-0 every week or winning 100-0 every week. My goal will be to prepare players to play any position on the field. It's nothing concrete, but something I've begun to think about. We'll see if I'm just a dreamer or not. We'll find out shortly.