I’ve had all kinds of thoughts crossing through my mind since I first learned that Pablo Mastroeni would no longer play for the Colorado Rapids. I can’t recall which came first: the sad ones envisioning this team without the legend, or the ones where I can see a bright future for the club (and Pablo).
As I drove in to the stadium today I thought back to those early January days in 2002 at our old office on 17th Street in downtown Denver. The league was set to eliminate (contract) two teams. For weeks our executives had been busy presenting the case of why the Rapids should remain. There was a lot of optimism sprinkled in to the reality, although it didn’t stop many co-workers from thinking the worst.
And when the League announced that the two Florida teams – the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny – would be folded, the relief turned into celebration and then to full on party-mode when we learned the Rapids would have the top pick in the forthcoming allocation draft for players from those two teams. (And yes, Colorado got the pick because they were bad, real bad, the previous year).
The Miami team was stacked, and Tampa also had many good players. But among my closer friends on the Rapids staff, there was no debate in who we wanted: Miami’s Pablo Mastroeni, the 25-year-old, tough defender who had been named to the MLS Best XI team the previous year.
Our PR director allowed a few us into his office to hear the conference call of the draft. If you can, imagine a group of soccer fans silently fist-pumping into the air and quietly high-fiving each other when we heard the team's general manager at the time, Dan Counce, and coach, Tim Hankinson, select the up-and-coming Mastroeni.
We were fans of Pablo's game, and then quickly fans of him. His long dreadlocks gave him the look of a rock star. He would go on to make the U.S. World Cup team that summer, and everyone knew he was a Colorado Rapids player – giving all Rapids fans more reasons to stick their chest out with pride.
Over the course of the next 12 years, when anyone thought of soccer in Colorado, they thought of Pablo Mastroeni - be it on the field, or off it.
Although he represented the club around the community, and with MLS All-Star and international appearances – including at the 2006 World Cup – the long-time captain will always be remembered in Colorado for leading the Rapids to its first-ever MLS Cup title in 2010.
And so today, as Mastroeni’s career with the Rapids ends, while sad to see him go – and even harder to imagine him in the Galaxy uniform - I can’t help but look ahead optimistically at what’s ahead for the Rapids.
You see, for those that don’t remember, on the day the Rapids acquired Mastroeni, there was also disappointment when they also traded Marcelo Balboa – until then, and even now – a club legend.
It was a tough pill to swallow, and it wasn’t until months later that many came to accept the move. The team had to look beyond the day, beyond the individual players and beyond the names on the back of the jersey. They had to think of the future of the Colorado Rapids.
Balboa only played one more game in his career, the last one of the 2002 season for NY. He retired shortly afterwards, but came back to Colorado and has remained a part of the Rapids pretty much ever since, having been inducted into the club's Gallery of Honor and serving is the team’s color-commentator for the past several years.
So it was then – and is today - the changing of the guard, or sorts.
It’s no secret that years of wear and tear on athletes eventually brings the end to their careers. When Mastroeni’s concussion symptoms caused him to miss all but the first two games in 2012, there was uncertainty if he would ever play again. Towards the end of that season, the Rapids signed World Cup and English Premier League veteran Hendry Thomas, then a 27-year-old holding midfielder who had played on the biggest stage for Honduras and for Wigan in the EPL.
After a year away, Mastroeni announced last December that he wanted to play again in 2013. However questions remained if he'd be the same player as before, or how much longer he could play. The team took steps to prepare for the inevitable, considering that no MLS field player had ever played in 16 MLS seasons, as Mastroeni was attempting to do.
While welcoming a healthy 36-year-old Mastroeni back, the Rapids also added more depth in the midfield with the likes of former All-Star Nick LaBrocca (28), former U.S. youth international Nathan Sturgis (25), and drafting Notre Dame rookie Dillon Powers (22).
Mastroeni can clearly still play, and admittedly says he was looking for a final challenge in his career. And the Rapids also have other options now in that midfield role, players that have potential for years to come. So the timing seems right on all accounts, even if it's hard to see today.
Only time will tell what's in the Rapids' future. But this move allows the team, and fans, to look ahead. It opens the doors for the next 'legend' to walk through. It reminds us that we're fans of the name on the front of the shirt, though always appreciating the contributions of those that have passed through.
In his letter to fans Pablo says Colorado will always have a special place in his heart. Obviously, he'll always have a place in the hearts of Rapids fans, too.