Pablo Mastroeni joining Real Salt Lake’s coaching staff was seven years in the making.
It was 2014. Jeff Cassar had just been hired to replace Jason Kreis, and Mastroeni had recently announced his retirement as a player. It was then that one of Mastroeni’s former teammates and biggest advocates went to bat for him.
His name was Kyle Beckerman.
The RSL legend, who now coaches the Utah Valley University men’s soccer team, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he went to Mastroeni and took his temperature about taking a coaching job. It almost happened, too, Beckerman said, but didn’t end up working out.
Seven years later, Mastroeni became Freddy Juarez’s lead assistant, hoping to help RSL regain its footing and revive its culture both on and off the field.
“For me, Pablo is the best signing for RSL this year by far,” Beckerman said.
It’s only been four games of the Major League Soccer season, with RSL holding a 2-1-1 record. But Mastroeni’s presence, personality and passion has already made a significant impact on the club.
Juarez put Mastroeni in charge of the team’s defensive tactics. Through four games, RSL has conceded just four goals and recorded its first shutout last weekend against Nashville SC.
“Pablo is playing a major rule in our success with our back line. He enforces it a lot during the week,” goalkeeper David Ochoa said. “All the players, we trust him and we listen to him.”
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Mastroeni came to RSL from the Houston Dynamo, where he worked as an assistant coach under Tab Ramos in 2020. Salt Lake paid the Dynamo $50,000 in general allocation money to get Mastroeni out of his contract there.
Before Houston, Mastroeni spent six years as the head coach of the Colorado Rapids, where he played most of his career. In 2016, the Rapids allowed a league-low 32 goals under his stewardship and also didn’t lose a game at home.
That previous experience and success as a head coach was a big reason Juarez wanted to bring Mastroeni in.
“He knows when it is time that he needs to go and check on the locker room and see how the guys are doing, or have a chat with someone else, or when he needs to step back,” Juarez said. “He knows that because he’s been in my shoes.”
As a player, Mastroeni appeared in the 2002 and 2006 World Cup. He also won an MLS Cup in 2010, one year after RSL won its first and only title to date.
Former teammates describe Mastroeni as a cerebral man whose passion for soccer beams out of him. But if someone played against him, beware.
“He was an a--hole,” said Tyrone Marshall, a former RSL assistant coach who now coaches an FC Cincinnati academy team. “When I [say] ‘a--hole,’ I mean he got in your face. You love him as a teammate, you hate him as the opponent because he was on top of you. He didn’t give you a chance to breathe.”
Rapids coach Robin Fraser, who played with Mastroeni in Colorado, recalled the first time he trained with a young Mastroeni. He was a veteran player in his mid-30s and didn’t get challenged by his teammates much during sessions.
But it was different with Mastroeni, who Fraser said left both feet to win a ball against him.
“I just barely get out of the way before he breaks me in half,” Fraser said. “And I thought to myself, ‘What’s this kid doing?’ And then right at that moment, I go, ‘I love this because this is how you’re supposed to train and Pablo doesn’t care that I’m an old veteran in the league, experienced guy or whether you’re the youngest guy in league.’ He plays the way he plays.”
Mastroeni is far removed from his feisty playing days and the time he took off his Rapids jersey and stuffed it into his shorts as a clap-back to rowdy RSL fans at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2006. He’s grown and matured since then, and learned about the game and himself throughout this coaching journey.
“What I think I’ve learned is until you really know who you are as an individual, it’s really hard to express yourself to others for them to understand,” Mastroeni said in January.
Beckerman said Mastroeni played multiple positions throughout his career — right back, center back, defensive midfielder — and used to constantly bark out instructions about where his teammates should position themselves. That level of communication and defensive knowledge seems to have worked its way into RSL’s team defense.
“Everybody knows what to do — all 11 people,” midfielder Nick Besler said. “Whereas maybe last year, it felt there might have been times where eight guys out of 11 were on the same page. Two or three guys not being on the same page, sometimes that’s all it takes to give up a couple of goals. This year it does feel more of a collective effort from all 11 guys on the field.”
Several players and Juarez said Mastroeni brings a positive attitude every day. Defender Donny Toia said he always has a smile on his face. Positivity is something Juarez has said was important to instill into the club.
“It’s easy to work for our coaching staff,” Besler said.
Juarez decided to completely overhaul his coaching staff for the 2021 season, letting go of coaches with whom he had worked for several seasons as an assistant under Mike Petke. Juarez said making those decisions led to many sleepless nights.
When it came to Mastroeni, something clicked immediately. RSL General Manger Elliot Fall said Juarez interviewed “dozens” of people for all the open coaching positions, but Mastroeni quickly emerged as his top choice.
Mastroeni felt the quick connection, too.
“When I spoke to Freddy for the first time, it was it was like I was speaking to someone that was thinking from the same place,” Mastroeni said.
Fraser’s memory tells him that when he and Mastroeni played together, his teammate didn’t seem to show much interest in coaching after his career on the field. But because of the constant passion that exuded from Mastroeni, he could tell that career move was likely in his future.
“So maybe I knew he was going to be a coach before he did,” Fraser said.