Pablo Mastroeni’s job requires a range of skills: philosophy, planning, analysis, decision-making, scouting and so much more.
Real Salt Lake’s interim boss is happy to dive into tactics talk; he knows how to motivate players. Despite his (in?)famous “stats will lose to the human spirit every day” rant near the end of his time in charge of the Colorado Rapids, he’s not actually averse to data.
But it’s another aspect of his work that really gets him going, a part that he clearly thinks deeply about.
“A lot of coaches spent a lot of nights thinking about ‘how we're going to tactically beat these guys.’ That, for me, I feel is the easiest part of the gig,” he said in a wide-ranging 1-on-1 conversation ahead of RSL’s Western Conference Final clash with Portland on Saturday (6:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes).
“The toughest part is making sure that each individual is ready to operate from his best self. And so that's where all of my life energy gets projected towards.”
Mastroeni is fascinated by the psychology of the game: the group dynamics that fortify successful teams, the environments that foster high achievement, the alchemy that turns a squad into something greater than the sum of its parts.
“I'll start from the big, esoteric [view]: It's a human experience. The game of football is played with humans. And my greatest experiences as a player came from a place of feeling. It doesn't come from a place of playing. Does that make sense?” he said.
"They’ve got to feel great"
Mastroeni points to his playing career with the US men’s national team, an eight-year span encompassing 65 caps and two World Cups, working first under Bruce Arena, then Bob Bradley.
“At the national team, I was a part of a group – I was a small part of a group – that was playing for something greater than myself. I belonged to a group. From that place, from that place of feeling, I was playing the best football of my career, of my life,” he explained. “In other words, if you feel great about where you are, your performances will reflect that.
“So as a coach now, I think in order to reach the soccer player, you must reach the human first. When you talk a lot about stats and tactics, these are Xs and Os – and absolutely necessary. You’ve got to have structure, you’ve got to have all these things. But in order for each individual to reach their potential best, they got to be playing from a great place of feeling. They’ve got to feel great. And so that's what I try to do with the way I coach, with the way I manage.”
That’s a decent window into the complexity of a character once considered the hardest d-mid in MLS, a take-no-prisoners type who actually reveres nuance, relationships and emotional intelligence. Who spent more than two years away from coaching, stewing after his dismissal by the Rapids, then chose to restart his career as an assistant under Tab Ramos with Houston Dynamo FC, spending long weeks apart from his wife Kelly and their children Luca and Giuliana in Colorado to “backfill” his understanding of the profession after leaping directly from player to head coach in 2014.
It also sheds light on how RSL have defied the odds and the prognosticators on their impressive Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs run.
“He's been a big part of our success since he took over,” playmaker Albert Rusnak said on Thursday. “I never saw him play. But just from how he is as a coach, I can exactly imagine what type of a player he was – the passion he brings every day to training and to the game days, it's like no other. So credit to him. He's done an amazing job.”
"My heart sank"
It starts with the simple, strange fact that Mastroeni, a Rapids icon whose No. 25 jersey was retired by the Mile High Club earlier this year, is working at their fierce rivals RSL in the first place. Former boss Freddy Juarez recruited Mastroeni to Utah last winter to help him build a sturdier team culture, then departed himself to take an assistant’s job with the Seattle Sounders in midseason as uncertainty swirled around his own future at a club still awaiting new ownership to succeed Dell Loy Hansen.
“I really enjoyed working with Freddy. I think he's a fantastic coach, and he's a better man. He's a great person,” said Mastroeni. “He was obviously torn because we'd really done a good job of reshaping the locker room as far as the culture, everyone buying in, everyone working hard for one another.
“When he told me [he was leaving], my heart sank. Only because I knew we were on the cusp of doing something special – like, I really felt a great energy within the group.”
That was late August. Salt Lake were locked in a tight, crowded race for a Western Conference playoff spot. Mastroeni asked Rusnak and his fellow veterans Damir Kreilach and Justin Meram to take on a greater role in leading the group, to help rally the team towards the goal of the postseason. On the pitch, he shifted to a 3-5-2 formation to nudge more numbers into the attack and compensate for the injury absence of influential right back Aaron Herrera.
It worked well, until it didn’t. Autumn wins over the likes of Seattle, LA Galaxy and Colorado contrasted with costly setbacks at cellar-dwelling Austin FC and Chicago Fire FC, and two losses at the hands of the very same Portland Timbers they’ll face this weekend: first a 6-1 thrashing in September, then a 3-1 home loss in the season’s final week that forced RSL to conjure up a road win at Sporting KC on Decision Day to snatch the West’s seventh and final playoff spot on the wins tiebreaker.
“We were playing in a three-back and creating, scoring a lot of goals,” said Mastroeni. “But the one Achilles heel was our ability to defend in transition. And against a team like Portland, where they thrive isn't necessarily the best setup.”
"The belief is there"
So he returned RSL to the four-man backline for Decision Day, emphasizing defensive solidity and organized team shape, and laid the foundation for a bold postseason expedition.
“Really, it was the genesis of changing that mindset of chasing the game that we had experienced in the previous two games,” he explained, “which is, give us a chance by being organized, being disciplined and really having a mentality that we're going to come into halftime 0-0 or up a goal. And I think we did a great job of that in Kansas City, and as the game went on, the belief in the group grew.
“I think if you can see the end in sight, the belief is there. So if it's 0-0, you always think that there's a chance.”
Suddenly things started clicking for RSL, even when COVID-19 robbed them of Rusnak’s availability on the eve of Round One in Seattle. Kreilach renewed his history of clutch plays. South American center mids Pablo Ruiz and Everton Luiz did yeoman’s work in the engine room. Young goalkeeper David Ochoa accepted the spotlight – demanded it, really – with his pantomime-villain gamesmanship and bold statements in the media.
“We kind of grew a different identity, that we were going to be this team that's going to be organized, and we can still play, but that we were going to manage moments better. And that was a big talking point for us throughout the season,” said Mastroeni. “Within a structure, within your defensive and attacking setup, we got to win the battle of the moments, and we got to be aware of these moments. And the only way to do that is to manage those on the field in real-time. And I think as a collective, we've been really good in the moments that are critical.”
Mastroeni himself has grown less “rigid,” in his words, evolving towards pragmatism, comfortable with problem-solving on the fly. It wasn’t his plan to park the bus in Seattle, concede 62% of possession and soak up 21 shots while taking none – that was just what the circumstances dictated against the defending conference champion, and he’s proud of how his players adapted and survived.
“We were under it quite a bit, but we never cowered,” he said. “We stayed strong and dealt with the moment the game presented in the best way possible.”
The story was quite different in the Conference Semifinal in Kansas City, where RSL beat Sporting at their own game, at their own place, even overcoming an early gift of a penalty kick that handed the hosts a 1-0 lead 24 minutes in. Second-half substitutes Meram, Anderson Julio and Bobby Wood all got on the scoresheet as Salt Lake won both the statistical breakdown and the match itself.
"It's not about me, it's about leading a group"
Now Mastroeni must find a way past the Portland side that's been such a rough matchup for RSL, winning all three of their regular-season meetings by a combined score of 12-4. Salt Lake are the underdogs yet again, and they’ve made clear that they’re just fine with that.
Whatever happens, Mastroeni has undoubtedly elevated his own reputation and his prospects for earning the job on a more permanent basis. Yet while media outlets have reported him as having already interviewed for the post, he says he asked general manager Elliot Fall to hold off on that process until season’s end, preferring to first direct his entire focus on the stretch run.
“What I don't want to get into is my professional career at the expense of what these guys are stuck with at the moment,” said Mastroeni. “And that's still how I feel today. It's not about me, it's about leading a group. And I think when you lead a group from a perspective of selfishness, you're going to end up pretty bitter with what's left behind.
“I've thrown all my energy in doing whatever I can, in every aspect of coaching, to prepare these guys and create a culture to where I feel we can all thrive. And if the byproduct of that is an opportunity to coach this team in the long term, then I'm grateful for that. And if it's not, I wouldn't trade that for the experiences that we've been through this year.”