By AVI CREDITOR
TORONTO- Pablo Mastroeni has seen the Colorado Rapids go through hard times. He's had his chances to seek success elsewhere. Now that the 34-year-old Rapids captain is on the cusp of capturing his first MLS Cup, his loyalty to the club has surely been validated.
Mastroeni is a grizzled veteran in more ways than one. Sporting a superb playoff beard, Mastroeni has taken his lumps with some poor, playoff-missing teams in Colorado, and he almost left the franchise toward the end of Fernando Clavijo's tenure as head coach.
When Gary Smith secured the coaching job at the end of the 2008 season, it represented a turning point in Mastroeni's decision-making process.
"All the years that we've put in in Colorado and never really reaped the fruits of our labor, and then to have Gary come on board and really sign on with him and be a part of it together has been great," Mastroeni said.
Mastroeni, acquired by Colorado with the first selection of the 2002 Allocation Draft after the folding of the Miami Fusion, passed on an offer from then-Serie B side Brescia in 2007 that tried to sway the defensive midfielder to Italy.
He was engaged in serious talks with Spanish club Malaga the following season, but he ultimately elected to stay in MLS.
"If I pursued it any more, it would have been a legitimate situation," Mastroeni said. "It was always a possibility (that I'd leave), but deep down inside I really wanted to stay in Colorado and win in Colorado.
"When Gary took over and said 'I'd really like you to stay on board to help me grow this and be a part of this,' I looked at it like a perfect opportunity for myself as far as being in a place for so long and not having any legitimate success and knowing that he was committed to the cause. In the end, I ended up where I wanted to be."
For Mastroeni, a fixture on the United States men's national team for the better part of the last decade, he had to frequently shift gears between starring on the international level and trying to rally the troops on one of the league's also-rans while playing in front of sparce crowds in Denver and Commerce City.
The constant peak-to-valley contrast grew tiresome.
"When you're playing teams like Germany and having results against some of the best teams in the world with the national team, and then coming back and theres 1,500-2,000 people at Invesco Field, it's kind of embarassing," Mastroeni said. "Those are just the mental battles that all players have to deal with, especially as the league's been continuing to grow."
After the last three seasons ended without postseason play, the Rapids assisted Mastroeni in the offseason with the acquisition of Jeff Larentowicz from New England, providing the captain a complementary partner at defensive midfield.
Their play has been paramount to Colorado's success, smothering opposing attacks throughout the regular season and this playoff run.
"We both came in recovering from surgeries, so we weren't on the field immediately when I got here," Larentowicz said. "We had time to speak off the field and get to know each other on a personal level. Once we got on the field, when you've played soccer for however long he has and I have, a portion of it comes naturally and a portion of it you have to figure out, but it didn't take long."
That new dynamic in central midfield has been part of a 2010 season that has appeared to rejuvenate Mastroeni, adding a bounce to his step while further defining his role and legacy with the franchise.
His goal in the opening leg of Colorado's first-round victory over Columbus was an example of how he and the Rapids have earned a place in MLS Cup, a combination of an Omar Cummings run, precise passing and team hustle.
"Everyone has bought into it, accepting what their roles were and kind of doing it together," Mastroeni said. "It's bigger than any one player, it's for the team, the club and everyone that bought into it, and that's why where we are today. The spirit of the group is bigger than any individual or scheme or tactics or anything like that, and those are the intangibles that aren't really spoken about."
After years of disappointment and thinking about what could have been elsewhere, Mastroeni has the Rapids positioned to reach the top rung of the MLS ladder, something he's worked toward for the last nine seasons.
"It's been tough for him," Rapids forward Conor Casey said. "There were some rough years for sure, not making the playoffs. If anybody (deserves to win MLS Cup) he does, and I'm going to go out there and try and win it for him."