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The metamorphosis of Pablo

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Pablo Mastroeni’s first attempts at rebranding himself as an MLS manager involved growing a handlebar mustache. That didn’t work. It turns out, the metamorphosis needed to be more than skin deep.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The main slogan of the Rapids supporters is ‘Keep Fighting’. But for Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni, the mantra is ‘It’s all about mentality.’

I, like most pundits*, wasn’t sold on Pablo Mastroeni coming into this year. There were three things that had me questioning his suitability to be a top flight MLS coach.

First, and most obviously, Pablo wasn’t winning. Even the most experienced, most erudite, most tactically nuanced of coaches won’t retain his job if the squad loses more often than they win. Ask Sigi Schmid. Or Jose Mourinho.

Second, Pablo’s post-game quotes have often shed no light on his tactical apporach or the specific failings of his team. Last year at this time, I wrote this:

Pablo not only hasn't admitted fault, he seems to have nothing at all to say in post-game comments that explain what fans have just been watching. Klinsmann occasionally throws his players under the bus. Thankfully, to my memory, Pablo has never called out a specific player for a mistake. He has called out ‘our backline', our ‘defense', but not a specific player. So that's good. Pablo also has never laid the blame on himself: he's never blamed: ‘my tactics', or ‘my gameplan'. I appreciate that he doesn't vilify players. But Pablo also hasn't admitted that he might have screwed up in, say, not man-marking Giovinco; or not properly adjusting strategy at the half.

Mastroeni has had some comments in his tenure that were real head scratchers. Earlier this year he answered a question about luck in soccer by saying,** “Yeah... I ask the question, what are we doing on this planet? It’s spinning a million miles an hour. How are we not feeling that? It’s crazy.” In 2015, in one game he complemented the team on their hard work by saying they really ‘brought their lunch pail to work.’ A few games later after a loss, Mastroeni was quoted as saying the team ‘didn’t bring their lunch pail.’ It became a thing. It felt like there wasn’t a plan, but rather, 11 guys playing defense for 90 minutes, 34 times a season. Mastroeni’s lack of clarity regarding tactics in post-game quotes led most fans to believe that Pablo was tactically ignorant.

And third, Mastroeni’s approach was consistent, conservative, and unchanged from match to match. The team played defense first, risk-averse football. The formation was almost always a staid and steady 4-2-3-1. Losing over and over again didn’t seem to cause Mastroeni to waiver from this position.

From the outside, it looked to me like Mastroeni was green and unprepared. In my mind, I conjured a cliche of a coach: a former jock with a few basic formations and some hackneyed old lines about ‘giving 110%’ and ‘playing like a team’. Losing, losing in a boring way, and giving boring quotes about losing in a boring way pretty strongly reinforced my image of Pablo.

Guys, I’m going to be honest. I think I was wrong.

At the Rapids Media Roundtable on Tuesday, Mastroeni showed me a level of depth, a level of seriousness, an introspective side, and an awareness of his craft that made me think that I’ve misjudged the man.

To Pablo Mastroeni, tactics are secondary to another , more important thing he wants to instill in his team: mentality. When asked about the tactical approach to Seattle, Pablo replied:

“As far as game plan, we’ve stuck to the same game plan all year, which is: be hard to beat, and be lethal with our chances. I think going to a place where there might be 60,000 plus, will be a great experience for all of us, and more importantly I think, because we’ve tried to keep a certain standard throughout the season it shouldn’t be that big a change for the group, it should be more of the same, but we just want to be better. Better with the ball, better in the attack, better in the defense, press better, and just do everything a bit better.”

In other words, to Mastroeni, soccer isn’t about tactical tinkering or using advanced metrics to derive other teams exploitable inefficiencies. It is simply a battle of executing your well-tested plan better than the other guy. Sure, maybe that feels overly simplistic. But you can’t argue with success. Colorado has taken their act to nearly every team in MLS this season, and only a scant few, when faced with a Colorado Rapids game plan that is entirely predictable, can beat the Rapids. There is no guile to Pablo Mastroeni, and yet he’ll still kick your behind.

Mastroeni, first and foremost, wants his players to be utterly committed: to be willing to run through a brick wall for him.

Pablo drills a fierce mentality of self-belief into his players like a studs-up version of SNL’s Stuart Smalley.*** He wants them to believe in each other and in themselves. And he wants them to be absolutely fearless.

“We don’t fear defending from any position. We don’t fear not having the ball. We don’t fear having a lot of the ball. We fear nothing. And so going to Seattle with the mentality that - we’re coming here, and if we can nick a goal here, we’re going to be in a good position coming back home.”

But the most important, and most impressive part of the interview, for me, was Mastroeni reflecting on how the difficult journey of the past two years have forged a stronger team, and a stronger coach, through the struggle. A lot people take adversity and let it beat them down. Mastroeni seemed to use adversity as a pivot point for self-improvement.

“I think you have to go through hardships in life to really have moments of reflection, and to ponder what changes need to be made in your life, in your career path, in order to get from where you are today to where you want to go. I think I’m quite an introspective human; I like to think about life at a much deeper level than most people, and sometimes it’s to a fault. I think a lot of the changes that I made, for my own life, have been a reflection of my professional life as well. That part for me: understanding that I have to continue growing every day, challenges me to wake up every morning and check myself. And I think that could be the same about this group of players. We started this in preseason, and obviously adding some new pieces, and where I think the level of growth has been much greater.”

Reading it over, when Pablo says ‘I like to think at a much deeper level than most people, and sometimes it’s to a fault’, you might want to roll your eyes with the absurdity that Mastroeni is some kind of warrior-poet with tantric meditative powers. But when he said it, he looked down at the table with a look that telegraphed real pain. He looked like a man who spent many nights questioning his whole purpose in the aftermath of loss after loss. And then tossed self doubt aside and used the pain as fuel for a comeback.

Do I think Pablo has emerged in 2016 as some great tactical genius? No, probably not. But he has forged a locker room of players that believe one-hundred percent in what the team is doing. He has a team of defense-minded, take no prisoners, fearless warriors, built in the mold of the tough-tackling d-mid that Pablo himself once was on the field. He has the players functioning as a unit, and each knows what they need to do. His players care and want to win because he cares and wants to win. His players are fearless because he is fearless. His players want to prove themselves because he himself has had to prove himself. Mastroeni had his whole coaching career on the line through those first 10 games this year, and he proved wrong all the doubters and the naysayers who thought he’d be the first MLS coach in 2016 to be fired.

Coaching is more than complicated diagrams and advanced spacial dynamics. It is just as much about attitude, belief, and mentality. It is about forming an identity and sticking to it. And it is about getting 11 guys to go out, game after game, and work together to the same goal. Pablo has done those things well, and success in 2016 has followed.

Mastroeni: the coach took a while to emerge from Mastroeni: the player. Mastroeni’s first attempts at rebranding himself as an MLS manager involved growing a handlebar mustache. That didn’t work. It turns out, the metamorphosis needed to be more than skin deep. Pablo has molted the shell of his previous incarnation and emerged as something new. The secret to that evolution, though, was losing. And that new Mastroeni was forged in a crucible of failure.

The failure was the thing that drove the self-examination, not only for Mastroeni, but for the entire Rapids team. Pablo found the fuel to improve himself, and brought 28 other guys with him for the ride.

“When you struggle through something together as a group, it fortifies the mentality, I call it psychological immunity. And you’re not scared to endure hardships anymore. You’ve been dragged through the mud, as we were last year. I think these guys have come into the preseason with a different mindset; a mindset of hunger, of belief, of proving everyone wrong, and I think that is a powerful mechanism to really grab a group of guys and achieve some things.”

This team has proven everyone wrong. They’ve built a fearless, feisty, winning mindset. And they’re on the cusp of achieving not just SOME things, but THE thing: winning the 2016 MLS Cup. Fear nothing. Believe in anything. Keep fighting.

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* Oh my God, I’m a pundit.

** Amazing work by Arielle Castillo and MLS at doing a Mastroeni/’Saturday Night Live’ throw-back ‘Deep Thoughts’. Props.

*** For you younguns, yes, that’s Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, back in what old people like me think of as ‘the glory days’ of SNL. All of us think that SNL when we were 17 years old was ‘peak’ SNL, and of course, all of us are idiots.