COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – At first glance, everything seems normal with Colorado Rapids midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. He practices fully, without the rugby-like helmet that had been strapped to his head for months, and he flashes his trademark grin as he walks off the field after a recent practice, joking with teammates.
The 36-year-old veteran midfielder has become a half-coach, half-player as he recovers from post-concussion symptoms. Mastroeni last played in a 2-1 win at Philadelphia March 18 before suffering a recurrence of headaches, leaving him away from the practice fields for months before returning in a slowly increasing role in the last couple of months.
The former US national team regular is essentially dictating his own role these days, often partaking in fitness drills and parts of scrimmages, depending on the day. But Mastroeni is now a regular at practice, mentoring younger players and re-establishing himself as the Rapids’ emotional anchor.
“For me, it’s good to be out for a personal level to be out with the guys and really not focus on concussion stuff,” Mastroeni told MLSsoccer.com after a recent practice. “Being out here on the soccer field is the one place that allows me to live in the present. I feel like with every week that I’ve been out here, my physical symptoms have waned, not to mention my psychological symptoms have improved greatly to where I don’t wear a helmet anymore out here.”
Mastroeni had previously described being in a “dark, dark place” as he struggled through his latest bout of concussion-related problems. Considering his age, recent history with concussions and his importance to the franchise, the Rapids are simply letting Mastroeni dictate his own role.
“With Pablo, we are taking it one step at a time,” Rapids head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSsoccer.com. “We want him to feel comfortable coming in in the mornings without having too much responsibility and a structured role. Instead, [we want him] just being around the boys, because I still consider him a half player, and he’s making his way into a new role.”
Mastroeni certainly looks the role of a player at practices, taking younger players under his wing and drawing on 14 years of professional soccer experience to offer anyone who will listen.
“Being around here and being in the locker room and having the experience I do in talking with younger players and talking with my teammates, it kind of takes your mind off certain things. You just pal around,” Mastroeni said. “Out here, it’s my temple, it’s the one place where I don’t feel any of that.”
Mastroeni hasn’t made a firm decision on his playing future yet – he expects to do so after the season – and he doesn’t plan on thinking too much about a decision until then, as he’s simply happy with the progress he’s made to date.
“If I’d have told you when I last spoke to you that I’d be out here without a helmet on, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” Mastroeni said. “And so for me, putting any type of time frame, any type of expectation would be futile for me. For me, it’s a journey in it of itself, it’s a journey within a journey.”
Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.