These days El Trafico and the Hudson River Derby are much in fashion when it comes to MLS rivalries. But a decade or so ago the hottest-burning clash in the league unfolded at altitude, in the heart of the American West. And Pablo Mastroeni was the match that lit the fuse.
Though some coastal audiences remain blissfully unaware (or at the very least under-aware) of it, there’s real enmity in the Rocky Mountain Cup showdown between the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake. Much of it can be traced back to a fateful night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, RSL’s home before Rio Tinto Stadium’s construction, in September of 2006.
In just their second season of existence, Salt Lake were in hot pursuit of a playoff spot, and so were the Rapids as they visited for the sides’ fourth and final meeting of the year. They’d split the points in their first three matches, so this game would also decide the ‘06 RMC winner. And Colorado took the field already nursing a grudge engendered by perceived disrespect in local media coverage.
“[RSL] had playoff hopes on the line, and there was some talk in the papers,” recalled Mastroeni in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week, “not really acknowledging us coming into town. And so, the game already was kind of edgy, from our perspective, anyways – you know when anyone writes anything in the paper you’re always reading it going, ‘really, we're not worthy opponents?’ So that's how it started.”
As Mastroeni remembers it, he was playing in the backline instead of his usual defensive-midfield role, which brought him a bit closer to some RSL fans engaging in consistent and extremely personal trash-talking all night.
“As the game wore on, their fans started to get a little bit more edgy,” he said. “We were winning, and their fans were just being ruthless … there's this group of guys just giving it to me, and it had nothing to do soccer, but it was really harsh. And I just kept saying to myself, ‘You hold on here, you got to get these guys going – you got to find a way to make the guys eat their words.’ That's how bad they're giving it to us.”
Considering Utah’s generally clean-cut reputation, RSL’s home faithful have a surprising reputation for heavily heckling visiting teams. By the time the final whistle blew on the Rapids’ crucial 1-0 win – Colorado would eventually snag the West’s fourth and final postseason berth, a mere two points ahead of Salt Lake — Mastroeni and his teammates, including future RSL icon Kyle Beckerman, couldn’t resist rubbing it in a bit.
“I went over to the fans, and they started throwing everything at us – beer, hot dogs, whatever they had,” said Mastroeni. “At that point you start fluffing your feathers a little bit, to the point where it kind of got out of control. A couple guys jumped out from the stands and they had to be restrained by the security.”
The US national teamer brandished his jersey at the stands, then tucked it into his shorts, a gesture he said represented Colorado having RSL in their pocket – though some on the other side interpreted it as something more obscene.
“When I was walking off the field, the [RSL] owner at the time, Dave Checketts, he came over and had a few choice words for me. And the only thing I said to him is, ‘your fans were ruthless, and for me not to be able to defend myself isn’t fair,’” said Mastroeni. “He wasn’t really having it, we got real close and I think it was at that moment where you realize that this is more than just a game, that every time we came to Utah or they’d come to Colorado moving forward, it was going to be more than just a football match.”
He would go on to coach the Rapids after retirement, a tumultuous four-year stint marked by highs and lows that ended with his dismissal in August 2017. After two years of family time and contemplation, Mastroeni returned to the fray in November, when he accepted an assistant’s role under Tab Ramos as the longtime US Under-20 national team coach took over the Houston Dynamo.
He says he knew it was time to get back into the game during a dinner with his family in their Colorado backyard last summer, when he asked his teenage son and daughter if they knew why he’d been spending more quality time at home, picking them up from school and the like.
“And my son goes, ‘No Dad, I think it's so weird that you don't have a job,’” recounted Mastroeni with a laugh. “Here I am thinking I'm doing a good thing, really diving into their lives, being present, and my son thinks I'm weird because I don’t have a job. And my daughter goes, ‘yeah Dad, I agree with Luca.’”
Now he’s ready to experience the inside of the Texas Derby, another MLS faceoff often underrated but rarely short on drama, that stands deadlocked at seven season wins apiece between the Dynamo and FC Dallas.
“Within the staff, within the club, there's a heightened awareness of how important that game is,” Mastroeni said. “And obviously talking to some of the fans as well: ‘we got to beat Dallas this year.’
“LA and New York are definitely sexy as far as cities and everything that comes with them. But I think when you look under the hood, you see some rivalries throughout the league that are really contentious,” he added. “When you're an aficionado of the Houston Dynamo or FC Dallas, you feel the game the same way that New York and LA do … your stadium is packed, there’s a lot on the line, there’s bragging rights.”
FCD-Houston matchups may take on an extra dimension now that Ramos has arrived in the Bayou City, charged with the mission to implement a youth-oriented model to take advantage of the region’s huge potential talent pool, much like what their North Texas counterparts have achieved so successfully.
Mastroeni says Ramos has attended many of the Dynamo’s academy matches and they work closely with academy director Paul Holocher, who was recruited from the San Jose Earthquakes to spark a renaissance at Houston’s previously-underachieving academy.
“Tab is really invested in seeing the growth of the academy, along with having quite a few academy players, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids join us for preseason,” he said. “And they did a heck of a job. So Tab’s really, along with Paul, invested a lot of great time into building that relationship.
“You see a team like Dallas has really reaped the benefits of the Homegrown Players – and not only just having them to have on the roster, but actually contributing in meaningful ways to the production of the team. So I think it's a great model, one that Tab’s really done a great job of investing in.”