How Real Salt Lake’s Pablo Mastroeni is building a culture in his own image

In his first full season, Pablo Mastroeni has navigated injuries and a difficult schedule to keep RSL in playoff position

(David Zalubowski | AP) Real Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni in the first half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, April 2, 2022, in Commerce City, Colo.

Pablo Mastroeni started today this way, because he starts every day this way.

Thirty minutes of meditation.

Thirty pushups.

Thirty kettlebell swings.

He wrote a page in his journal, a habit he has had for as long as he can remember. And he read a chapter from one of two books — either “The Untethered Soul,” which he considers to be something like his Bible, a work that reminds him how little control we all really have; or “The Surrender Experiment,” which Mastroeni says is a lesson in saying yes to whatever life puts in front of you.

Right now, this is what life has put in front of the Real Salt Lake head coach: a 4-2-4 record, which puts RSL fifth in the Western Conference heading into the weekend despite a road-heavy and injury plagued start to the campaign; a new ownership group with a track record of success; and fanbase that, for the first time in club history, has opened the year with four consecutive sellouts at Rio Tinto Stadium.

All of that to say that life Mastroeni is saying yes to feels pretty good at the moment — and plenty around RSL say credit is due the new man in control (to the extent any of us controls anything really).

The Tao of Pablo

Mastroeni hadn’t seen an episode of the hit show “Ted Lasso” when RSL removed his interim tag and named him the club’s manager in December.

“I’m a little bit nervous to check it out,” he said as he began preparations for the season. “Because it sounds like a spoof on everything I believe.”

What are those beliefs? The Tao of Pablo, as it were, has three key tenets:

No. 1 – Teamwork. Playing for something greater than yourself.

No. 2 — Effort. There’s no excuse not to give 100 percent of what you have every single day.

No. 3 — Perseverance. The ability to overcome difficult situations.

“The amazing things about those three things is those are free,” Mastroeni said. “You wake up and you decide if you’re gonna be one of those players.”

At the moment, it appears his players have bought in.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Real Salt Lake defender Marcelo Silva (30), Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Zac MacMath (18) and Real Salt Lake defender Jasper Löffelsend (28) celebrate the win against LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, April 30, 2022. Real Salt Lake defender Marcelo Silva (30) scored the one goal to win the match 1-0.

RSL team captain Damir Kreilach has only been healthy enough to play in five games this season. Star defender Aaron Herrera has missed time with injury too. And only this week did RSL announce the signing of its third Designated Player, Jefferson Savarino.

Yet, RSL has still found success early in the season. Less-used players have stepped up. Like Tate Schmitt, who has two game-winning goals under his belt already this season, including one in stoppage time to complete a 3-2 comeback over New England. Like Zac MacMath, who has recorded four shutouts in 10 starts with last year’s starting goalkeeper David Ochoa out of the lineup.

“If we didn’t have that culture, I know for a fact we wouldn’t be where we are on the table,” Mastroeni said this week as his team prepared for a road game at Nashville. “Culture is the one thing that brings confidence into the group when there’s so many changes in and around. And it allows for players to step in, even though they might be unfamiliar with the tactics that we’re trying to employ, yet contribute to the game because they know and they trust that the guy behind them is going to cover for them if they make a mistake.”

Team culture is an amorphous concept, but an undeniably important one.

“Building an environment and building a locker room that is bought in and fights for each other and wants to do what it takes to win, that’s priority number one,” General Manager Elliot Fall said. “We continue to prioritize that. We will always prioritize that. And Pablo does an unbelievable job of of building that environment.”

Rebuilding RSL

Mastroeni came to RSL in 2021 initially as an assistant coach, and it didn’t take long for his experience and demeanor to start rubbing off on the players and translating to on-field performance. Club legend Kyle Beckerman called him “the best signing for RSL this year by far” at the time.

One way Mastroeni has tried to build team culture is by relating to every player on the roster at their level. The former MLS player has been in practically every situation — from coaches not believing in or trusting him to being team captain. So depending on the situation, he wants to meet a player where they are.

“I think the most important thing for me is that I always do it from a place of empathy,” Mastroeni said. “So for me, before I speak to anybody, it’s really about understanding where they’re coming from, empathizing with them and then speaking from that place.”

In many ways, Mastroeni believes that culture matters more than tactics.

“Soccer is not a game to me,” he said. “It’s a sanctuary. It’s a place where I can operate from my best self without any fear. That’s one place I’ve never had any anxiety, any fear. That’s why I talk about the game from that perspective. A lot of people like to talk about Xs and Os. To me, that’s the last thing.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) as Real Salt Lake hosts LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium, Saturday, April 30, 2022. Real Salt Lake defender Marcelo Silva (30) scored the one goal to win the match 1-0.

The coach believes a positive culture “is what makes good teams great.” And RSL hasn’t been a “great” team since arguable the early 2010s, even if it did make it to the Western Conference Finals last season after many thought it wouldn’t even make the playoffs.

The fan base seems to believe greatness is again possible, evidenced by those four straight sellouts at the RioT for the first time in the team’s history.

But even a philosopher-coach like Mastroeni knows that culture will only go so far in that endeavor.

“At the end of the day, results on the field really drive success, " he said. “… Having experienced what this fanbase felt like as a victory in the heyday of this club gives me great hope and pride to lead this group in that direction once again.”

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