National Writer: Charles Boehm

Why Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni opted to "follow my heart"


Two years ago, Pablo Mastroeni was about as far away from his past soccer life as a former professional head coach, World Cup veteran, MLS Best XI and MLS Cup winner can be: quite literally digging ditches for a friend’s water company in the Denver area after his firing by the Colorado Rapids, as he related to Grant Wahl in a recent podcast conversation.

It’s an understatement to say that his soccer stock has risen substantially of late, thanks to what you might call his bailout of Real Salt Lake after former boss Freddy Juarez’s sudden departure for an assistant’s job with the Seattle Sounders in late August.

Having joined Juarez’s staff just a few months prior, Mastroeni stepped into the breach, steering RSL into the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs as interim head coach and leading them on an unlikely underdog run to the Western Conference Final via upsets of Seattle and Sporting Kansas City. Along the way, as he describes it, he eschewed the formal interview process, asking general manager Elliot Fall to judge him on his actual product instead.

On Monday Salt Lake officially removed his interim tag, confirming that they – like many others outside Utah – liked what they saw.

“I didn't want to spend energy on putting together a presentation to interview for the job when I have a bunch of guys in that locker room that need guidance,” Mastroeni told reporters. “I had to galvanize the group, make sure we were able to compete, make sure we stayed the course and were relevant towards the end of the season to vie for a playoff spot. And that's where I wanted all my energy to go. It wasn't that I didn't want the job.

“I had the opportunity to work with this group for four months. And if the style of play was in line with what the club wanted, if the culture was what the club wanted, if the mentality of the group was expressed, and more importantly, if the results went our way, then I felt like it was a real-life interview.”

Betting on himself has worked out well. Mastroeni’s approach made him desirable to others, with ESPN reporting that FC Cincinnati and Houston Dynamo FC – the latter, ironically, had him on staff under Tab Ramos in 2020 – sought his services as they conduct their own coaching searches. The cohesion and camaraderie he experienced at RSL led him to stay, however.

“I always felt like I had the support of everyone here at the club, and was given everything I needed to lead this group,” said Mastroeni. “At the end of the day, I think professional sports is such that there's always going to be interest from [elsewhere], and I think you have to follow your heart. And you think about the commitment that everyone at this club put forth to make 2021 happen – and I'm talking from the president, John Kimball, and everyone on down, medical staff, equipment, staff, I mean, everyone.

“You always see the players and the coach, but there were a lot of people behind the scenes that put in a lot of work to make everything happen. So it didn't take much thought to follow my heart and find myself in the seat I am today.”

His club remains in a state of transition, with league officials overseeing what is hoped to be the final stages of a search for new ownership to succeed Dell Loy Hansen. That process has curtailed investment in the first-team squad, though Mastroeni said it didn’t faze him, electing to emphasize the “foundation” crafted this year and RSL’s relationship with the wider Salt Lake City community.

“The feeling that we had last year just captivated my spirit as a coach, my desire to want to be a part of this organization. And so I’m humbled and grateful to be given this opportunity by the club to lead this group forward and to continue building,” said Mastroeni. “When you have players as we had last year that were so committed not only to the big picture, but to each other, and held themselves accountable, I think this is the beauty of sport.”

On Monday he spoke more about his desire to bolster his coaching staff and fortify the locker-room culture than make new signings. Asked about bringing on his friend Kyle Beckerman, currently the men’s soccer coach at Utah Valley University, Mastroeni suggested that his former Rapids teammate is happy in his current gig but revealed that they’re set to have dinner and a chat to catch up this week.

Having opened up the throttle with an attack-minded 3-5-2 formation in the regular season before battening down the hatches with a 4-2-3-1 that made them a tough out down the stretch, Mastroeni pointed to the importance of tactical flexibility for 2022.

“I really think it's about doubling down on everything, on the way we want to play, on the mentality, on the culture of this group,” he said. “In the four months that I took over, there was a mindset shift in one of acceptance into who we are and more importantly, the mentality that we wanted to play with. I think we were tactically flexible … now the focus is obviously working with Elliot and Kurt [Schmid, RSL’s technical director] and making sure that we put a roster together, and getting guys back and continue to build on that foundation that we built in 2021.”

Safe to say that sort of construction project beats what he was doing back in 2019.

“It's one of those experiences that I think honestly gave me the drive to get back into soccer, into coaching,” he said. “When you look back at those experiences, you're grateful for having them, but also grateful for not being in a ditch.”