In Pursuit of Pedagogy: Why Pablo Mastroeni is still coach in Colorado

Why Pablo Mastroeni is still coach

This article originally appeared in Mile High Sports Magazine. Read the full digital edition.

Pablo Mastroeni is tapping impatiently on his smartphone.

He taps. He looks.

He taps again. He looks again.

What he’s seeking is hidden by the spinning wheel that every millennial knows all too well. His connection is too slow.

He’s trying to properly define a word that has consumed him for the past five months. The word is important, critical to the conversation in which he finds himself. He knows the word intimately, but he wants to make sure its spelling, its pronunciation, its meaning, is presented accurately.

Finally, there it is.

“P-E-D-A-G-O-G-Y” he spells out deliberately. “Ped-ah-goh-gee. Pedagogy.”

Defined, the word of Greek origin is “the method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept.” Applied, it is the quest that Mastroeni believes will ultimately define his legacy as a professional soccer coach. If he can master this one thing – pedagogy – he will be the coach he knows he can be. A great coach. A coach that not only understands the game of soccer like few others do, but one who also can teach it – all of it – to his players.

If anyone understands what he’s trying to do – why, exactly, he’s so fascinated by this concept of pedagogy – it is his mother. When he was four years old, his mother and father gathered up Pablo and his older brother from their home in Argentina and moved the family to the United States. His mother possessed limited knowledge of the English language, so it was peculiar that once the family had settled in their new home and it came time to go to work she opted to become a kindergarten teacher. Furthermore, she had no teaching background, not even in Argentina.

“Just because she had kids that were five years old at one time,” Mastroeni says, “didn’t make [her] a good teacher.

“She had to commit to a career path that’s going to teach you how to teach.”

So Elci Mastroeni began taking classes. She better learned the language, but more importantly, she learned how to teach.

Pablo, now 39, relates to his mother’s brave endeavor. In fact, he leans on it. She, perhaps like no one else, understands what he’s going through at the moment. He too is trying to become a teacher, a teacher of the Beautiful Game.

Mastroeni draws this parallel: His mother knew plenty about five-year-old boys, but she did not instantly comprehend how to teach a room full of them, each already immersed in American culture, all that they needed to know; Pablo knows a lot about the game of soccer – an insane amount, no doubt – but he did not instantly understand how to teach a team all that he knows.

He’s still in the process of figuring this out.

Pedagogy,” he reiterates.

Mastroeni is one of the most decorated players in American soccer history. He claims 334 MLS appearances in a playing career that spanned from 1998 to 2013. He was named to the MLS Best XI in 2001 and earned an MLS Cup with the Colorado Rapids, as a captain, in 2010. At the international level, Mastroeni has 65 caps with the U.S. Men’s National Team, playing in two World Cups and captaining the team once. At 5-foot-10 and debatably 170 pounds, those who know the game have always said that it was not his athleticism, but rather his extraordinarily high soccer IQ that set Mastroeni apart. He studied the game. He knew the game. He visualized how things would play out every time he took the pitch.

And that knowledge is ultimately what landed him his first head coaching job.

Even if he wasn’t necessarily ready for it.

He knew he wanted to coach – that was never the issue. But he imagined that he’d begin in an academy environment, teaching technique and individual skills, perhaps helping some of America’s top high school or college talent make the step up to the next level. He didn’t think he’d be coaching professionals; he assumed he was better suited to positively influence smaller groups of young players. He had a few ideas, although he didn’t necessarily know how or when or where they might be implemented.

But when opportunity presented itself just prior to the 2014 MLS season with the Colorado Rapids, an organization he knew well, he didn’t wait. “I love a great challenge. And that’s why I took this job,” he says, overlooking the dormant pitch at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Both he and the organization acknowledged the fact that he’d be learning on the fly.

“I think the misconception about coaching is that because you’ve played the game at a high level you know what you’re doing,” he says. “I think that’s a huge misconception.

“You finish your playing career with the absolute most knowledge that you’ll ever have of the game as a player. I felt incapacitated – I don’t know if that’s even the right word…

“How do I get all of this, and explain it to you guys – now?” he asks.

Then he answers.

“That’s called pedagogy.”

***

In the March 2015 edition of Denver’s 5280 Magazine, writer Natasha Gardner, who penned an excellent piece on Mastroeni, noted that the the coach – at the time heading into his second year on the job – knew there was a “deadline for getting more wins on the board.” She then posed this question:

If 2015 unfolds anything like 2014 did, how long will he last?

Flash forward 12 months and that question, drenched in its own premonition, remains unanswered. On paper, 2015 was eerily similar to 2014, as the Rapids were – more or less – the same, woeful soccer team. They produced just 37 points (compared to 32 in 2014) and mustered only one more win than they did the previous year. In the standings, they actually fell, finishing dead last in the MLS Western Conference. Yet, heading into the 2016 campaign, Mastroeni’s place on the sidelines is seemingly secure.

And he’s not worried.

“All my energy is not placed on, ‘Oh Shit! What am I going to do if I get fired?’ No, no, no, no,” he says emphatically. “Own it. Take 100 percent responsibility. And get better at your craft. Basic. Basic. I will be a great coach one day. I will be a great coach. There are no qualms about that. I don’t doubt that for a second.”

His business card remains the same, but the past two seasons in Colorado have not been pretty. Mastroeni is acutely aware of this.

“If I could jump into the stands with [fans] and have a go at myself for what was happening on the field, I would do that,” says Mastroeni, who still holds the MLS record for most red and yellow cards combined.

A team coming off back-to-back sub-40-point seasons for the first time in franchise history has issues, and certainly not all of them land on the head coach. Mastroeni is adamant about absorbing 100 percent of the responsibility at all times – “because if you take 100 percent of the responsibility, then you can actually affect your progress as a coach” – but any outsider can fathom a diversification of blame.

At the 11th hour before the 2014 season, the Rapids were thrown a major curveball. Twelve days into the MLS Player Combine, then head coach Oscar Pareja told the team he was headed for F.C. Dallas. The Rapids had suddenly lost an entire coaching staff with only a month and a half remaining before the season. A week before the team’s first game, Mastroeni was named head coach.

Pareja was coming off a successful season. His team earned 51 points and a spot in the postseason. He had a talented roster that fit his style of play.

That style didn’t necessarily fit Mastroeni, but it didn’t seem to matter. Exiting July, his team had compiled a respectable record of 8-7-6, keeping pace with Pareja’s efforts from the year before. The first-time head coach had the full confidence of the organization and its fans.

But in retrospect, it was fool’s gold. When August struck, Colorado didn’t win another game, finishing the MLS season on a 14-game winless streak.

Adjustments were made heading into 2015, most notably in the front office. Colorado brought in ex-Rapid Claudio Lopez as the club’s director of soccer, and then in mid-January hired Padraig Smith, who was at the time working for UEFA, as its sporting director. Both additions, admits VP of soccer operations and technical director Paul Bravo, probably occurred a bit too “late” in the process.

Despite the team’s struggles – it finished 9-15-10 – there were positive, albeit confusing, developments. Specifically, the Rapids were the third-best defensive team in MLS. On offense, they ranked sixth in chances on goal.

“If you don’t know anything, and you say, ‘out of 20 teams, this team created the sixth-most chances on goal, and they were the third best defensive team. Where did they finish?’ You would not say ‘at the bottom.’ You would not say at the bottom,” Mastroeni says firmly.

“I’m not a guru in [the stats] department, but as a coach, if you want to talk about tactics, we put the team in great positions to score goals, and set up the team defensively to minimize a few. Now, I think that’s a statistical anomaly that we finished last with those type of stats.”

Anomaly or not, Mastroeni takes responsibility – that’s what he does, 100 percent of the time – but rumblings outside the organization suggested additional theories. Too many cooks in the kitchen. Not enough bona fide talent amongst Rapids attackers.

In March, the team signed Irishman Kevin Doyle as a designated player, and that helped. He was a veteran international star and a true “No. 9.” Doyle didn’t make his debut until May 27, but he still led the Rapids with five goals, four of which were game winners.

The end results were practically the same, but at least the season finished with a slight uptick. From July on, Mastroeni’s club earned 22 of its 37 points. That might have been enough to save his job.

“He’s been typecast as a defensive-minded coach,” says Bravo. “There’s no doubt that he proved he could coach that side of the game. The next stage for him is being a little bit more of a risk taker, allowing for expression, the risk of getting more numbers forward and then try to apply an attacking philosophy to what we’re trying to do.”

Bravo’s words translate more concisely than Mastroeni’s favorite Greek word: Score more goals.

***

“You have to learn to coach!” Mastroeni says, raising his voice and adding emphasis on the word “learn.”

It always goes back to pedagogy.

“Pabs asks question after question after question,” says Chris Sharpe, Mastroeni’s friend and teammate of nearly 10 years, and now his assistant coach in charge of goalkeepers.

Following the 2015 season, Mastroeni asked more questions – thirteen of them, in fact, to every player on the Colorado Rapids roster.

At the conclusion of the season, he handed his team a survey, one he’d concocted, one that he hoped would guide him further in his search for pedagogy. He wanted to learn what, over the course of two seasons, he had learned, what he was doing well, what he was doing poorly, if he was effectively sharing his knowledge of the game with his players. But he wanted to hear it from them.

“No. Never,” answers Sharpe after he’s asked if, in all of his years of playing and coaching, he’s ever seen this tactic used. “Not once. It takes a strong-willed person to do that, because you’re making yourself very vulnerable.”

Mastroeni waited two years before requesting this type of feedback. He took criticisms to heart. He found satisfaction in knowing that ultimately, his players graded him the way he would have graded himself: “As a guy that’s driven and just wont quit until he gets where he wants to go, all the while understanding who you are through reflection and the necessary steps you must take to get where you want to go.”

And that was just the beginning of an offseason filled with more questions, more learning and plenty of self-discovery. Through Bravo and Rapids president Tim Hinchey, arrangements were made for a European “tour.” Mastroeni spent time with Arsenal, finding that Rapids owner Stan Kroenke’s “other” soccer team uses a very “hands-off, philosophic approach.”

Then he visited Arsenal’s biggest rival, Tottenham Hotspur F.C. The club’s famed manager, Mauricio Pochettino, operated in a completely opposite manner; he was very “hands-on.” Mastroeni was impressed with the tremendous abilities of the Tottenham staff to manage its players.

When he returned from Europe, he went directly to the U.S. Soccer “Pro License,” a pilot program coaching course that featured peers from MLS and the USMNT. It was there that Peter Vermes, a former Rapid, who has an MLS Cup as both a player and manager with Sporting Kansas City, had the advice for Mastroeni that might have resonated best.

“Listen man,” Vermes told him, “you gotta stay true to f***in’ who you are, pal. It’s not about doing it like anyone else… you can’t lose who you are in this whole thing.”

Mastroeni then headed back to apply what he’d learned. He isolated himself from his family and the holiday season, scratching ideas on giant pieces of paper he stuck to the wall. He made presentations. He took notes – things he wanted to tell his players, his staff and his bosses.

“I left understanding that I have to get better at getting all this information out. Pedagogy,” he says as he glides his finger tips across the table in the shape and circumference of a soccer ball. “I went full circle with all kinds of ideas, and you get back and you’re like, ‘pedagogy.’

“You have to coach from your authentic self. The one truth that came from all of this was that if you coach like anyone else, there’s no truth in that, and you’re not believable. It’s who you are.”

He couldn’t wait to get back to Colorado. Once he was, an offseason of internal meetings began in earnest. Hinchey, Bravo, Smith, Lopez and Mastroeni would regularly sequester themselves in a room, having spirited and passionate discussions for hours. They were the kind of talks that families have, debates where everyone involved has the same goal in mind, but don’t always agree on the exact way to accomplish it.

“Those discussions get heated,” says Bravo. “They get talked through thoroughly.”

“There were times you walked out and you just felt drained,” Mastroeni says. “You wanted to come home and sleep. Everyone is putting his life’s work into this thing. It isn’t a hobby – that’s what a lot of fans misconstrue. I don’t spend weeks or months away from my family playing golf – that’s a hobby. This is our lives.”

Through it all, the constant has been a tremendous amount of patience. Organization with coach. Coach with himself. Everyone with “the process.” Fans, however, do not always share that same level of patience. Losing is no fun; they want answers – sometimes heads. But Bravo has been here before.

“After Gary [Smith’s] first year, people wanted him fired. After Oscar’s first year, when he lost 19 games, people wanted him fired. And look what that those guys were able to do,” he quips. “Gary? Two playoff appearances and an MLS Cup. Oscar? The best record in the history of the club after losing 19 games.

“We have to really be critical in our thinking to make sure we’re not lacking patience in a young head coach. We could be sitting on a gold mine.”

Could be.

That’s still an unknown. It’s certainly not a lock, which is why both coach and organization didn’t waste a second of an offseason they hope was one of the most productive in Rapids history.

“Through a lot of great dialogue, conversations at times, discussions, the five of us said we all agree that there needs to be a change in the way we operate,” says Mastroeni. “We all held our hands up and said that.

“If the people are going to remain the same, then the process must change – if there is any hope for success.”

***

Heading into the 2016 season, the people are indeed the same. Bravo stays. Hinchey stays. And most notably, Mastroeni stays.

The Rapids now seem to be a complicated, carefully woven tapestry of philosophies, styles and patience. The club’s rebirth is the marrying of corporate and coaching wisdom with white board sessions and presentations that have been written down, scribbled out and spelled out over and over again. The approach is a methodical mix of the stuff that can be found on those inspirational posters – the kind that hang from the walls of sterile skyscraper boardrooms and dingy coaches’ offices far and wide – and a burning desire to once again become a winner. And it’s all to be done by following the lead of the organization’s favorite son.

All of it sounds great; to a man, the Rapids will tell you that for the first time years, all parties are pointed in the same, well-meaning direction. But as is often the case in professional sports, there’s really only one question that matters: Will any of it translate to wins?

Or, as it pertains specifically to Mastroeni, how soon will winning be a part of his journey to becoming the great coach he knows he’ll be?

Sharpe’s faith in his friend and boss is unwavering: “He’s a winner. He’s a f***in’ winner. He’s a winner from the start.”

But will being a winner produce those seemingly elusive wins? Better yet, will they arrive in time for Mastroeni to remain the head coach in Colorado?

“Certainly, results will be the final decision maker for us,” says Bravo. “Because this is the year we feel we need to get back to the playoffs. We feel that we need to deliver a home playoff match here in Denver for us to regain the momentum in this Rapids way.

“It’s a constant evaluation. It has to be at this point. I owe that to my boss. I owe that to the club. And I owe that to our fan base and certainly our commercial partners, as well. There are a lot of things at stake; we all know this.”

Mastroeni knows this, too. But it’s not likely that his actions or ideals will be governed by wins or losses. He will instead have faith in the process. If it’s performed properly, the results will come – so long as he’s true to his players, the game and himself.

And so long as he’s true to his pursuit. The same pursuit that made his mother an unlikely, but prodigious and nurturing teacher. The same pursuit that will be the very reason he’s one day great.

“That’s pedagogy,” he repeats. “Pedagogy.

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