Real Salt Lake players sat in silence as Pablo Mastroeni entered into his postgame speech. The team had just pulled off a stunning victory over the Seattle Sounders in which it did not record a shot on goal for 120 minutes but won in a penalty shootout.
The interim coach talked about winning at all costs, no matter how pretty or ugly a game is. When he recounted how RSL had just proved doubters wrong by knocking off the Sounders, Aaron Herrera flexed his muscles and yelled in celebration with the rest of his teammates.
Mastroeni ended his speech with a message.
“If they don’t cut off our f---ing legs, we won’t stop running,” he said. “Don’t cut off our f---ing arms, we won’t stop fighting. And unless they cut out our f---ing hearts, this group right here won’t stop believing. We’re going to the f---ing finals, boys. Get f---ing ready.”
It was the type of speech after which athletes and fans alike would say they would willingly run through a brick wall.
“The passion he brings every day to training and to the game days is like no other,” captain Albert Rusnák said.
Mastroeni has led this RSL team to a place it hasn’t been in years: the Western Conference Finals, where it will face the Portland Timbers on Saturday on the road. And he’s done it despite uncertainty surrounding the club’s ownership transition and his own job status.
Mastroeni joined Real Salt Lake as an assistant coach and brought along plenty of question marks.
How was the fan base going to react to him after he made an obscene gesture toward them in his playing days with the Colorado Rapids? How would he complement then-head coach Freddy Juarez. Was he ostensibly the head coach in waiting? Soon after his hiring, it didn’t take long for players to wax poetic about the positive impact Mastroeni was already making, particularly on the team’s defense. It was clear then that, despite some pushback, RSL’s front office made the right choice.
Then Juarez left and Mastroeni became the interim coach. He changed the team’s formation. Results were up and down and they were leaking goals to opponents left and right.
Meanwhile, coaching candidates the likes of Landon Donovan, Jason Kreis, Luchi Gonzalez and Pat Noonan have emerged. Fans grew more anxious each day a permanent hire wasn’t announced.
But now that RSL has won three straight road games and is entering the conference finals for the first time since 2013, there seems to be some support for Mastroeni and the removal of his interim status. RSL legend Kyle Beckerman has already publicly backed Mastroeni regardless of how the season ends.
While there are coaching candidates waiting in the wings, RSL general manager Elliot Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune that interviews haven’t been conducted for some time because the front office wants the current season to play out.
“We’re not focusing on the coaching search,” Fall said. “We have an opportunity right now to do something special and to continue doing something special for this club. That’s where our focus is and we’ll make the right decisions at the right time.”
Mastroeni is coaching the team and winning in real time while the permanent job is still up for grabs. Fall made it clear those in the front office are not letting themselves get too swayed by the moment.
“In our positions, we have to try to remove as much emotion as we can from the decision-making process,” Fall said.
Many prognosticators predicted RSL would finish at the bottom of the West in 2021, mostly due to the team still going through an ownership transition and bringing in new players that had at the time been unproven. The team almost didn’t make the playoffs, but a last-second goal by Damir Kreilach against Sporting Kansas City on the road on the final day of the season secured the seventh and final slot.
It appears beating SKC that night meant more than just qualifying for the playoffs.
“I think the Decision Day performance in Kansas City really tipped the scales for us from a belief perspective,” Mastroeni said.
Forward Justin Meram credited Mastroeni for taking a job that “came out of nowhere” and making the best of it. In addition, Meram said Mastroeni has been instrumental in the players understanding their roles and keeping them ready.
“I think you’ve seen the quality rise and you’ve seen the players come together in a way we haven’t seen in years past,” Meram said.
RSL will have to translate that passion and self-belief to beating a Timbers team that had their way with Salt Lake in the regular season, beating them three times with a combined score of 12-4. In two of those games, however, RSL played in the 3-5-2 formation that allowed a flurry of goals.
Salt Lake believes it can win.
“The way we won against Seattle, the way we won against [Sporting Kansas City], it says so much about this team — about confidence, about winning mentality, which is to trust and believe every single second in every single person next to you,” Kreilach said.