COMMERCE CITY, Colo.—When the Colorado Rapids and Philadelphia Union face off Saturday night in the Week 13 MLS LIVE Game of the Week, it will not just be a match-up of two first-place teams (Western and Eastern Conference, respectively). It will also feature the two teams to have made the biggest turnaround over the past seven months – after each missed the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“After having watched quite a bit of Philadelphia in the past few weeks, I think we’re very similar in a lot of ways,” Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com. “The focus is on the team, the guys work extremely hard for each other and there’s a lot of belief in the camp. From that perspective, I’m not surprised. But there was a lot of people at the beginning of the season that wouldn’t have predicted it.”
The two teams also have similar head coaches: Both Mastroeni and Union head coach Jim Curtin have been shown patience by their respective clubs’ management, despite recent struggles.
“I think we both had tough seasons last year and when you go through some of that hardship it inspires change,” Mastroeni said. “We want to get better as coaches and we want to continue to grow.”
A key to that growth has been time, a luxury not afforded to every coach, but a resource that Mastroeni called “invaluable.”
“I think time is of utmost importance to be able to do that. I don’t think anything good happens in a short amount of time,” Mastroeni said. “The last couple of years have been very difficult but with the support of the organization, the front office and everyone in the locker room, we’ve been able to identify the direction we’ve been able to move in.”
Curtin acknowledged the culture his counterpart in Colorado has been starting to build.
“You watch and turn them on, they get after you, they compete,” Curtin said. “It’s no coincidence they do look like Pablo out there: closing the ball down, getting after each other. He’s getting the most out of his group right now, and they’re playing some good soccer.”
Rapids goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who has played under both head coaches after stints with each club, noted the similarities.
“They’re both young coaches that are going through the transition from player to coach,” MacMath said. “It’s a lot of learning on the job. Last year, we all had some growing pains with the Rapids. I know with [Curtin], in my first year with him as a head coach, we had some growing pains as well. They’re both trying to figure out how to build their personalities as a coach and implement it on their players.”
In a press conference earlier this season, Mastroeni noted the challenges of making the transition from player to coach, but he’s been able to lean on those alongside him in the coaching fraternity – including Curtin.
Said Curtin: “I text with Pablo, he’s a guy…there’s a group of about 10 to 12 of us that are taking their pro license together, all MLS players — MLS coaches, excuse me, a lot of them did play, it kind of goes that way. And he was the guy in the course when it started – it’s year-long, it started in December – we were talking about different things; a lot of similarities in our groups, and talked about the good and the bad, and the trials and tribulations of being a young coach.”
For Mastroeni, the discussions with Curtin and other coaches have been a beneficial tool to his development as a head coach.
“There was a lot of sharing in the offseason about some of the difficulties we experienced,” Mastroeni said. “Being relatively new coaches, we found ourselves in the same situation. It’s always good to have people to talk to and bounce things off of and help you along.”
Things will remain friendly when they step on to the pitch this weekend, despite the vital importance of Saturday's match for each team to retain its top spot.
“It will be 100 percent congratulating him on a great start to the season and seeing all of the hard work he’s put forth,” Mastroeni said. “I don’t think it’s an accident that he is where he is in the East and his team continues to display the mentality that exemplifies Jim.”