Rapids' Mastroeni simply another US fan during 2010 World Cup

Midfielder holds fond memories from 2002, 2006 WC participations

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Pablo Mastroeni sure has a different perspective on the 2010 version of the World Cup. Unlike 2002 and 2006, the Colorado Rapids’ captain won’t be playing; he’ll just be watching.

The veteran of 63 US National Team caps isn’t at all unhappy he won’t be in South Africa. He’s looking forward to spending time watching the games with family as well as with his Rapids teammates. And there will be the small matter of a quick trip to Las Vegas with Conor Casey --two players who could’ve been in South Africa blasting shots will instead be driving golf balls down the middle of the fairway.

“That time has gone,” says Mastroeni of his current exclusion from the US squad. “I’m living in the present and that’s probably why my life is so much more enjoyable at the moment. My family life is great, my professional life is great. I couldn’t ask for more.”

The Mendoza, Argentina-born Mastroeni will, of course, be rooting for the US, the country to which he and his family relocated when he was a child.

“Having played for the US, the spirit of the team will definitely still be with me,” Mastroeni tells MLSsoccer.com. “The belief in one another always will have me rooting for the US and, for now, I can sit back and watch it from a fan’s perspective and see who’s playing the best soccer.”

Although Mastroeni shared the field with most of the current US squad during qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, he shared his fondest memories with players such as Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onweyu as they took the pitch in Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006.

So when he looks back at the tournaments he did play in, two games perhaps stand out the most: The unexpected 3-2 victory over Portugal in 2002 and the fateful 1-1 tie with Italy four years later.

“Sharing the victory against a Portuguese team that were highly rated and highly ranked,” says Mastroeni of his favorite memory from 2002. “Sharing the victory with the fans, taking off our shirts and throwing them into Sam’s Army --we were reveling in the moment. It was David taking down Goliath [and] it really spurred belief in the group. We exceeded peoples’ expectations in 2002, including our own.”

When Mastroeni laced his boots for that game, he barely had 10 caps for the National Team. He had not played in any World Cup qualifiers and was hastily called into the team to start against one of the best teams in the world with players like Luis Figo and Rui Costa.

Four years later, he was more grizzled. Experiences were different. After a difficult opening loss to the Czech Republic, there was an emotional reunion with families the night before the US took on Italy. Emotions were especially high because of a moving send-off from Iraq- and Afghanistan-based US service men and women via video at the team’s Kaiserslautern base in Germany.

“We are on base hearing these people giving their lives for freedom and being cheered on by these people who are risking their lives,” Mastroeni says. “It choked everyone up. It was a real humbling moment. Something special happened in the team after that as we went into the game against Italy.”

In that match, the US went down after a goal from Alberto Gilardino put the Azzuri on top just 22 minutes in. But things quickly turned in favor of the US. Cristian Zaccardo’s own goal drew the game level in the 27th and, just a minute later, Danielle de Rossi was sent off.

With an extra man, things looked bright for the US. But as quickly as the pendulum had swung the US’ way, it swung back in favor of Italy and it all came tumbling down for Mastroeni, as he was shown a red card at the end of the first half for his two-footed tackle of Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo.

“That was probably the worst moment,” Mastroeni recalls of the ejection. “It was almost surreal, as if time had stopped. I couldn’t hear anything. I was stuck in this place I never thought existed; a real quiet, real dark real calm, almost serene place. I buried my head in a towel, having no thoughts.”

Teammate Eddie Pope followed suit just two minutes into the second half. Down two men, the team somehow managed to pull off a gutsy draw against the eventual World Champions, the US’ only point in that tournament.

Yet somehow the American midfielder manages to see something positive from an event that most would deem disappointing.

“I’ve always looked at it as a positive thing in my life rather than a negative one,” says Mastroeni. “It takes a difficult situation to really grind through it mentally and better yourself as a player and as a person.”

It is those experiences, along with many others, from which Mastroeni has learned to become a more relaxed player this year, both on and off the field, and he will carry that attitude into the month-long tournament as he watches and cheers from afar.

Thus, he turns again to next week’s international extravaganza and the US’ group-opener against England on June 12, a game which he says would do wonders for the National Team if they can walk out of it with a positive result.

“The pivotal game is the one against England,” says Mastroeni. “That first game could really motivate and give a fairly young team confidence. If they have a bad result, it will be an uphill battle.”

And although for now it will be asados (barbecues) at home with his Argentina-diehard family, training sessions with the Rapids and 300-yard-long drives in Las Vegas with good friend Casey, don’t rule out a future Mastroeni comeback with the National Team.

Nick Thomas covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.
Next week, Thomas will present another feature, this time on Argentine forward
Claudio Lopez.