COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – “Definitely don’t write that.”
Pablo Mastroeni strolled out of the Colorado Rapids locker room on Thursday afternoon with an unmistakable, ear-to-ear smile as he walked into the mid-May sunshine, with only a reporter between him and the players’ parking lot.
Thirty-six years young, the two-time World Cup veteran and face of the Rapids for more than a decade is in the unusual position of riding the bench, looking for an opportunity to re-establish himself after a string of nagging injuries kept him out of the lineup for most of the season.
These days – as he’ll tell you – Mastroeni’s greatest contribution is sharing his wisdom with others and helping out his teammates with advice and knowledge.
But don’t you dare call him a player-coach.
The fiery midfielder makes it clear that he still wants more than ever to be in the starting 11 on Saturdays – but in the meantime, he’s finding his own unique way to contribute to his team, whether it’s giving young left back Chris Klute a tip on positioning, offering an encouraging word to fellow midfielder Nathan Sturgis, or even taking rookie midfielder Dillon Powers out on the golf course for a few words on the meaning of life.
It’s a new role for Mastroeni, who has watched the youthful Rapids survive a brutal early bout of injuries to post a surprising 4-4-3 record ahead of Saturday's visit to San Jose (10:30 pm ET, watch on MLS LIVE), even with the veteran of 323 MLS games contributing only 142 minutes so far this season.
“We all want to put our own best interests in front of the team’s best interests, whether professionals tell you that or not,” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s what makes careers. It’s what gives you better contracts moving forward in your career. So, yeah, I want to be a part of a winning team, but I want to be playing. I don’t want to be sitting down.
“It’s important to have experienced leadership where you say, ‘Listen, I understand the situation. I’m respectful of the situation. I’m going to continue working hard, and I’m going to await my opportunity.’”
Mastroeni has played all of 17 minutes in the Rapids’ last three games, with Sturgis and Powers currently preferred by head coach Oscar Pareja. And while Mastroeni doesn’t like it, he understands it.
“I’m [at an] understanding with where I am. My role currently is not on the field,” Mastroeni said. “When you’re a player, you want to play. But when you’re not playing, you’ve got to be positive; you’ve got to find a way to contribute. And that’s what I’m doing.”
A year ago, Mastroeni was embedded in what he described as the darkest period of his life, suffering from concussion-related symptoms that affected his overall quality of life.
So while he might be on the bench and not in his preferred role, with a greater perspective and appreciation for life, it’s easy to see why Mastroeni was smiling as he walked out of the Rapids facility on Thursday.
“It’s important to keep working hard, keep staying injury-free – it’s a long season – and enjoy it as it comes,” Mastroeni said. “I have to be doing something positive. I have to be contributing in some way.
"It’s not about me. I’ve already had that ‘it’s about me’ stage in my career. If I’m on the field, I’m 100 percent. I’m contributing that way. If I’m not on the field, how am I contributing? How am I being a positive influence?”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.