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Season Review: Pablo Mastroeni

An in-depth look at Coach Pablo Mastroeni's season. A caution to readers: this isn't going to be pretty.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As Burgundy Wave's resident Pablo apologist, I get to write the review of our dear coach because, well, the rest of the staff would not be charitable, nor give any quarter to Mr. Mastroeni.

Here is the opinion of our sainted editor, John Rosch:

"Pablo was a failure in his second season and played the most boring type of soccer possible: park the bus and try and score on the counter. He seemed to lack an understanding of tactics and formations and truly appeared to stunt the career for some players that could have and should have been key contributors. I would like to say there is hope for him in 2016, but I am highly skeptical and he will need to prove it to me that he is a capable coach."

So, not subtle. I'm not as dire about Pablo's inadequacies or outlook. If you want an angry, hate-filled screed that marks Mastroeni as a 100% F- grade manager, stop reading now. These are not the droids you're looking for.

However, no matter how rosy a writer can put it, Pablo Mastroeni has been an unmitigated failure up to this point in his career. At 19-34-18 (WLT) over his two seasons at the helm of the Colorado Rapids, Coach Mastroeni hasn't proved he can manage a club at the top level. As we all know, he got the job in a bassackwards way: when Oscar Pareja left the team in the lurch a few weeks before the start of the 2014 season began, Mastroeni, who had been tapped for a nebulous role as a ‘Technical Advisor' was suddenly thrust into the top gig. So everyone (maybe?) forgave him when the 2014 season turned out to be a mess.

With a full year under his belt, and an off-season to build the system he wanted, hopes were high in Commerce City that Pablo could show progress in 2015. With an overall record of 9-15-10, last in the Western Conference, it's hard to see 2015 as a step forward for Mr. Mastroeni. So what's wrong? Can it be fixed?

Offensive Tactics: F

The Rapids scored only 33 goals in 2015, worst in MLS. And it wasn't even close, as RSL had 38 goals. The team shedded it's leading goal scorer, Deshorn Brown, after only one game, and gave rookie Dom Badji and DP Gabriel Torres basically equal time starting up top at striker until Luis Solignac got a game and Kevin Doyle was permanently installed up top. The personnel on attack; Dillon Serna, Juan Ramirez, Dillon Powers, Marcelo Sarvas, Vicente Sanchez, Gaby Torres and Dom Badji; should have been sufficient to generate a fair share of offense. There's a mix of clever passing, devastating speed, physicality, and technical ability with the group. But as I mentioned in my treatment of Paul Bravo and Claudio Lopez, the sum was less than the total of its parts.

I should think the Rapids could have scored more with these players. The team was shut out entirely 11 times. The team's leading scorers were Sanchez and Torres with 4 goals and Doyle with 5 goals. Torres was enthroned upon the bench from mid-season on. Doyle didn't play the first three months of the year. A full 28 MLS midfielders outscored the Rapids  strikers. Even a defender, Jeff Larentowicz, had more goals.

The Rapids use of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 tended to be a conservative cousin to a formation that teams have used in a variety of ways in recent years. Although Chelsea in 2014 used it to get just one or two goals, then stymie offense with a fierce defensive midfield presence, teams like the Columbus Crew and Borussia Dortmund have generated prodigious amounts of offense with it.

The Rapids have struggled to find goals in this system. Often the team tries to move the ball up the flanks, then struggles to get the ball into the middle of the pitch. The team really struggled to make anything happen out of the corners, as both crosses and attempts to get the ball to the top of the 18 yard box ended fruitlessly time and time again. A lot of possession ended , especially in the first half of the year, on ineffective over-the-top deep play, and on diagonal balls that didn't connect. The team often went for medium and long range passes. This is two things: 1) a function of a defense minded offense, since it's harder to give up a goal if your bad pass ends up on the far side of the center line, and 2) a function of an un-creative offense, as the team really struggled to march up-field in the central zone.

Early in the year, the defensive mids would make late runs into attack, but as time went on, you saw Pittinari and Sarvas getting into dangerous spots less and less. The team went forward conservatively, with only three or four players in the attack, the rest parked deep. Sudden counters or aggressive breaks died without supporting players. From mid year on, the team's plan centered on defending fiercely, getting a lucky break, and nicking a goal on a set piece. Mostly, that didn't work.

Center mids and d-mids rarely formed attacking triangles that put the ball in truly dangerous spots, like the precious zone 14, often because there weren't three players on the same side of the field committed to going forward, especially on counter-attacks.

Rapids shots, though plentiful on the year, were taken from far less effective spots on the field, resulting in wasted chances. Observe.

That's the Rapids at (no surprise here) dead last in Expected Goals (xG) with 1.00; meaning, from where the Rapids took their shots compared with other teams, they took the poorest shots; the least likely to score shots. So if somebody tells you that the Rapids don't finish their chances... notsomuch. Really, their offense doesn't get them into enough spots to score.

I don't have a simple answer to this. Woody Paige's mention that Pablo might hire an ‘offense coordinator' sounds interesting, but then I wasn't aware Woody Paige had even a passing familiarity with soccer until that moment.

This team needs more than one creator in the front five or six. It needs more fluid play between attacking mids. It needs to commit more bodies forward. It needs better link-up play from fullbacks and d-mids to the attacking four. That's a lot of things to fix, but the teams needs to score at least 45 goals next year to be relevant. Or we're screwed.

Defensive Tactics: B

Put. Down. The. Pitchforks. Pablo might have done jack-squat to craft an effective offense. But he said from the start of the year that his team was going to be fierce in defense. Here's Pablo before the season:

"Defensively, I want to be the team that everyone hates to play against because we're so hard to break down. "

They weren't quite all there, especially in the last 11 games, when we surrendered 24 goals. But for the first half of the year, Pittinari and Cronin/Sarvas stomped out attacks and made going at the Rapids very difficult indeed. Pittinari in particular was all over the pitch, playing a free-roaming destroyer / mid-field libero that, while sometimes overly zealous, certainly was a pain to play against. Sjoberg and Burling cleared a ton of balls. Burch and Harrington did good work on the flanks. Riley had lapses, but wasn't a catastrophe. And Moor organized it all really, really well. This was a hard, hard team to break down, and a frustrating, physical, smart team that could knock you down AND get you to foul yourself into a yellow card. The team conceded 43 goals, 6th best in MLS. They had been on pace for something like 34-36 until they added St Ledger and Figueroa into the defense.

This team was more concerned with not conceding goals during the year. It ain't flashy. But Mastroeni set out to do it, and he mostly did it. If you wish for more fluid, attacking soccer in 2016; if you hope the team will be much more aggressive and abandon the defense-first philosophy, I think you'll be disappointed. I suggest you embrace the #RapidsThugLife way, the Pablonaccio,
while hoping it finds a way to win too. If you want a pretty attacking team, find a mistress in another league (mine's Arsenal).

In-Game Management (Subs, Mid-game Adjustments): C-

There are two ways to make in-game adjustments: change the tactics and emphasis, almost exclusively with your focus at the half (since there's no time outs), or make some game changing subs, like putting on an extra striker in place of a defender or midfielder, etc.
This was not a strength of Pablo in 2015. Take a look at the following stat (which I had to compile myself, because MLS ain't quite there yet. )

Time                                          W-L-T

Record when tied at half 4-4-8 
Record when up at half 2-3-2 
Record when down at half

What does that tell us? First, the Rapids went into the half with a lead JUST SEVEN TIMES in 2015. That is awful, and shows that pre-game tactics were inadequate. The team seemed to shoot for ‘muck up the midfield, make it hard to score, hope the altitude saps their strength, nick a goal in the last 10 minutes.' When the team gave up that goal before the half, they were pretty much doomed. But that's unfair: I suspect most MLS teams have poor records when behind at the half. But then, you can't have a split of 7 games ‘up at the half' and 11 games ‘down at the half'. That's a hopeless situation.

I never saw a significant shift in tactics out of the half in 2015.

In his last game on Saturday, the now-departed Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho took off defender John Terry at the half against Leicester City to go three at the back. It resulted in a loss, but still, it was an aggressive move to change the game. I can't recall a single instance when Pablo took a gamble like this.

If you saw Pablo make a tactical shift, make note below. But when the team was behind, when they were ahead, didn't matter. Same formation; roughly the defense and pressure applied at the same places. Sometimes I'd see a shift in the offense. The Rapids sometimes put the ball in the air more in one half or another: ran the flanks or one side of the field more prominently. This isn't a tactical change, per se, but more an area of emphasis, or the attempt to address a flaw. Sometimes it bore fruit, but mostly not, as the won-loss above demonstrates.


Although Pablo is a bit wedded to the like-for-like swap, overall, I think he did OK with his choices for subs.

I read through many games this year, and often Pablo pulled the same switch I would pull. Torres ineffective in the first half? Pulled off in a June game. Powers not providing enough speed after 60 minutes? Swapped for Torres in a May game. Behind a goal with LaBrocca in the starting lineup? Put in Sanchez. Dom Badji being ineffective? Throw on ... Torres (we really lacked striker options before Doyle arrived, didn't we?) Late in the season, after the 70yh minute Charles Eloundou and Juan Ramirez often came on as speedy agents of chaos. These were the right moves, even if they didn't always work. Don't believe me? Go to and click on any Rapids game, and tell me what moves you would make.

Granted, these are like-for-like swaps. I'd prefer, when behind in those 11 games, to throw on an extra attacker. But, looking at the bench, I'm not sure that taking off a defender for Luis Solignac or Gaby Torres was likely to get you the win or the tie. Still, it should have been tried.

Growth of Young Players Grade: D-

With the exception of Axel Sjoberg, who I thought showed some nice development this year, young players have either plateaued or regressed under Mastroeni. Dillon Serna, Jared Watts, Charles Eloundou and Shane O'Neill have all failed to develop into reliable first team players under Mastroeni. Pittinari and Ramirez were disappointing in myriad ways, and I didn't see either get better either. O'Neill and Eloundou are gone; if they turn into big stars in a few years, we'll know that the Rapids development was flawed. Dillon Powers is, to me, a disappointing story as well. Although given the chance to be the number 10, he never quite had the attacking flair to become ‘the guy' this team needed. He pinged a nice through ball on occasion, but he didn't score or create enough; 3 goals and 6 assists is his lowest output. Perhaps it was the offense. Maybe he's not a number 10, but a #8 or even a #6, and the coaching staff didn't see it. Anyhow, Powers' failure to develop is at least the partial responsibility of the coach.

The Rapids will be going younger next year, with many older players released and many younger players retained. This needs to get better. Like, really.

Press and Interview Grade: F

Oh my God. So bad. The only reason to tune in Pablo Mastroeni's mixed zone presser is to hear cognitive dissonance personified.

To his credit, Mastroeni never ever throws his players under the bus in public. Note that contrast sharply with how Pablo address players in private. In practice at DSGP, Mastroeni likes to use the F-word as a verb, noun, AND an adjective in order to motivate his players.

However, Pablo insistence at giving bland platitudes in media interviews, win lose or draw, is maddening for fans. We see toothless attacks and defensive-minded play, week after week, and Pablo gives us the same tired ‘we need to get better in the final third'; ‘we really brought our lunch pails today'; ‘we showed a lot of fight'.

It hurts, Pablo. Stop. Tell the fans the truth, even if it burns the players, once in a while. Go watch film of an MLS coach who does these things well: Bruce Arena; Caleb Porter; Jesse Marsch; Mike Petke. If you see shit soccer, you are allowed; nay, obligated to say ‘That was some shit soccer we just played. I apologize, Rapids fans.'

Maybe Mastroeni's bad with words. Tough. He's got to work on it. I'm actually a rabbi. I actually get paid to deliver public remarks on a regular basis. I was lousy at first. I worked hard. I practiced. I got better. Pablo and his higher ups may not think this is important. He may not think he needs to work on this. They're wrong. He's terrible. Fans notice. As Mike Petke would say, "It's gohttah be behttah."

Pablo Mastroeni's Overall Grade for 2015: D

...  ...  ...

Outlook for 2016:

This team needs to finish 6th next year and make the playoffs, or Pablo is getting fired.

I don't have any evidence to indicate that the team is going to finish sixth, so I'd say the outlook is both dire and desperate for the Rapids gaffer.

I've said to many friends that Ben Olsen, who is the same age as Pablo, who played in MLS alongside Pablo, who played for the USMNT with Pablo, also needed time to develop. Olsen endured a 3-24-7 year in 2013; that's the worst season in MLS history. And DC United kept him. Since then, DC United has been 30-14-15. DC made the playoffs this year with a team that was basically Bill Hamid, Fabian Espindola, and a bunch of stiffs playing grind-you-down soccer. I believe that's a great example of a coach; a contemporary of Pablo Mastroeni, with almost identical career experience preceding this year; being allowed to struggle and fail, and then growing into a success.

So, Pablo suddenly turning it around and blossoming into a successful MLS coach can happen. I'm rooting for it to happen. Rooting against Pablo isn't an option if you're a Rapids fan, because it means rooting against the team.

Still, fans might be spending 2016 doing less ‘rooting for' and a lot of ‘praying for' instead. (Sigh.)