COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – In Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni’s eyes, the effort is there, the fight is visible on a weekly basis and the talent on his team is plentiful enough to warrant a spot in the postseason.
But to Mastroeni, one key dynamic has led to the Rapids’ spiral down the Western Conference standings and the likelihood that they will miss the playoffs this season: a lack of on-field leadership.
It’s something the first-year head coach hinted at last Friday but made crystal clear on Tuesday, calling out his team for not holding themselves accountable enough during Colorado’s nine-game winless spell, during which the Rapids have been outscored 29-9 and suffered a franchise-worst seven-game losing streak.
“The kind of players that we need in order to never experience this again are players that want to [meet] what my expectations are, players that lock themselves up in their room to figure out whatever it is they need to do to help the team out,” Mastroeni said. “This is the type of responsibility I placed on myself. I’m saying if I’m going to be the coach here and the manager here, I need people who think along those same lines.”
In particular, Mastroeni wondered aloud about the lack of a players-only meeting, something he said has not happened during the winless spell, which has seen Colorado collect just a single point out of a possible 27.
With regular captain Drew Moor out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL and fellow veterans Edson Buddle and Vicente Sanchez frequently battling injuries of their own, Mastroeni feels experience is lacking to steer the otherwise youthful Rapids out of their brutal run of form.
“I don’t think tactically we’re in bad shape; I don’t think technically the players are deficient,” Mastroeni said. “The mistakes that we’re making in games, to me, [are] individuals without any confidence and no one on the field to pick them up and hold them accountable when those things are happening. So it keeps happening, because everyone’s so focused on what they need to do individually.”
In Mastroeni’s view, a single goal rattles the Rapids’ confidence and makes them afraid to make mistakes, snowballing into even more individual miscues that have become commonplace over the last two months.
Frequent mental errors – most recently and notably, new starting goalkeeper Joe Nasco committed two blunders in Friday night’s 5-1 loss at Real Salt Lake – combined with injuries at key positions and to the team’s limited supply of veterans have forced Mastroeni to pick from baby-faced benchwarmers to round out his starting 11. Mastroeni, however, also defended his current roster by mostly pointing the finger at himself and the front office for not providing enough veteran depth to account for injuries.
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For example, in the loss on Friday, Mastroeni's bench was composed of a 19-year-old (Charles Eloundou), two 20-year-olds (Marlon Hairston, John Neeskens), two 23-year-olds (rookie Grant Van De Casteele and Dillon Powers), a 24-year-old (Chris Klute) and a 25-year-old goalkeeper (Clint Irwin).
The youth of the depth, in Mastroeni’s view, is leading to a fragile mentality at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, something that appears to be giving Mastroeni, for so many years the club's captain, a helpless feeling as he looks on from the sideline.
“I ate it. I lived it. I was a miserable human to live with,” Mastroeni said of his playing days and how he handled his captaincy. “Because my focus was 100 percent entirely on my profession and on my trade. There hasn’t been a players-only meeting to this point, and we’re nine games into a bad run of form.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.