Colorado Rapids Captain Pablo Mastroeni Nears End of Long Road to a Title
They haven't slogged through all the seasons of mediocre records and mediocre attendances.
They haven't felt the frustration associated with playing for the only ever-present team in Major League Soccer that failed to qualify for an MLS Cup or U.S. Open Cup final in the 2000s.
They haven't been forced to watch as clubs in other cities became relevant, while theirs struggled to draw respectable crowds.
The Rapids with the second, third and fourth longest tenures with the club, Omar Cummings, Conor Casey and Kosuke Kimura, came to Denver in 2007, the year the franchise opened Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
That was five years after Pablo Mastroeni arrived. Five very, very long years.
"To be honest, that goes to your head," Mastroeni said in response to a question from FanHouse here at BMO Field, where the Rapids will face FC Dallas for the league title on Sunday night.
"You're playing teams like Germany and having decent results against some of the best teams in the world with the national team, and then coming back and there's like 1,500, 2,000 people at Invesco Field, which if you guys have been there, it's kind of embarrassing. I think those are the mental battles that all players have to deal with."
Mastroeni's national team career was taking off. He snuck on to the 2002 World Cup roster after Chris Armas was injured, took the Chicago Fire veteran's spot at defensive midfield and helped the U.S. reach the quarterfinals. He won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2005, played in the World Cup again the following year, then won another Gold Cup in 2007.
Mastroeni probably was being kind when he said that "goes to your head."
The 34-year-old is the club's all-time leader in minutes, games and starts. Combined with his four years with the Miami Fusion, that's 13 years without a sniff of a championship. He's accumulated personal honors, all-star appearances and a spot on the league's Best XI, but has spent the majority of his career enduring losing seasons for a club that was borderline irrelevant in its home town.
Only one player in MLS history, Dallas striker Jeff Cunningham, has played more regular season games without a trip to the Cup final. Both will end those streaks on Sunday.
"I know it's been tough for him. There have been some rough years for sure, not making the playoffs," Casey told FanHouse. "We're excited to be here and definitely want to seize the moment, because it doesn't come around too often."
This year, this team, clearly is different. In his third season, coach Gary Smith has built the team he wanted, anchored in the middle by Mastroeni and former New England Revolution midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, and featuring the league's best striker tandem in Casey and Cummings. Colorado finished 12-8-10, its best record since 1999, and was the second-highest scoring team in MLS.
This team, Mastroeni said, was ready to make a run to the final. They ousted Columbus in the first round, then defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, 1-0, in conference final (photo above).
"In years past when we came into the playoffs ... it was like 'how did we get there?' The pieces didn't add up," he said.
"This year, from the first game forward, it was pretty much the feeling that we had a solid team. We had a direction. We had a belief. So I'm really excited about the prospects of this game and the whole attitude of the team and the organization."
Mastroeni's national team career is over. He received the last of his 65 caps in June 2009, and wasn't even listed in U.S. Soccer's as a member of the player pool in the 2010 media guide. He's well past earning any opportunity to go to Europe. He cast his lot with the Rapids, and until now, had seen little reward.
On Sunday, he'll finally have a chance to end years of frustration. And he'll play a key role, assigned to monitor Dallas playmaker and newly-crowned league MVP David Ferreira
"To win the Cup would be great," he told reporters here. "I think at a young age you can take it for granted. You think you have a long time to get to that point. It's been 13 years, and it's my first opportunity to win the Cup. So as you mature in this career, you realize how significant these moments are. I think it would be a great accolade for the club, and for me personally as well."
Said Casey: "If anybody (deserves a championship) he does. We're going to go out and try to win it for him, for sure."