Pablo Mastroeni - coaching - close up

Real Salt Lake turn to once heated rival as they seek vital ingredient for 2021 | Charles Boehm

If you’re not aware of the backstory, Real Salt Lake’s Tuesday announcement probably faded right into the woodwork for you on this and other websites. And to be fair, an assistant coach changing teams isn’t necessarily a big news item in most cases.

There’s a bit more needle to Pablo Mastroeni moving from Houston to Utah, though. The Colorado Rapids legend did his part to set the Rocky Mountain Cup rivalry aflame via a wild run-in involving players, fans and even a team executive or two at Rice-Eccles Stadium way back in 2006, a story he shared with me last spring and one that still irks some RSL hard-cores to this day.

So it’s not exactly a textbook hire. But that’s a big part of what makes it interesting.

There’s some explaining to do for any club that brings a prominent face from a heated rival across the divide, and RSL’s is a pretty good one. Kyle Beckerman was a Rapids teammate of Mastroeni’s that night, and the Salt Lake faithful were rather skeptical when the then-dreadlocked midfielder arrived via a trade the following year. We all know that worked out pretty excellently for the Utahns, right?

The idea is that Mastroeni the coach can bring something important that RSL need, just like Beckerman the player once did. 2020 was an even rougher year than most for the Wasatch gang, who are carrying some quality pieces but just couldn’t put it all together on the pitch, while controversy and eventually plans for a sale swirled around their ownership group off it.

On paper, Real shouldn’t be second from bottom in the Western Conference standings. They’ve got some of the best player-development infrastructure in the league, from their groundbreaking academy and training facility to their intimate, high-altitude home stadium, and have two veteran, international-caliber creators, Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach, at the heart of the XI in addition to their homegrown talent.

But they never looked like the sum of their parts last season, much less anything more, and the thinking is that a strong, steely personality like Mastroeni can lift the collective culture out of the doldrums.

Pablo Mastroeni in action for the Colorado Rapids in a match against Real Salt Lake on Oct. 14, 2011 | USA Today Sports

“We are a young and developing team and we need people that have been there and seen it,” said head coach Freddy Juarez in Tuesday’s press release announcing Mastroeni's hire. “On top of that, he’s a great person and for me that was important.”

Another angle to consider here: Juarez also deserves some credit for the self-belief that undergirds this hire. The former academy coach is still less than two years into his top-flight managerial career and has taken no small amount of criticism for his team’s underachievement. Now he’s added someone to his technical staff who has the track record to be his replacement, and not every young coach possesses the confidence to do that, nor the self-awareness to recognize what’s lacking in his current group in the first place.

All this makes RSL a more intriguing story to watch in the coming months, even setting aside the ongoing matter of Dell Loy Hansen’s search for the optimal buyer to take the club forward.