Cup Dreams Runneth Over for Father and Son
July 8, 2005
WESTMINSTER, Colo. -
By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY
When former NC State men's soccer player Pablo Mastroeni saw the banner, unfurled before the thousands gathered for the USA's 2002 World Cup match against Portugal, he knew his father remembered. The banner echoed a conversation from 16 years before, an exchange that buried the seed of a little boy's ambition among his father's deepest desires.
Frank Mastroeni was a whirl of emotions when his native Argentina played Germany in the 1986 World Cup final. Soccer can make him so crazed he has to leave a stadium midway through a game, so impassioned he chokes up while talking about it on the phone with a stranger.
The day Argentina beat Germany 3-2 for soccer's most celebrated prize, 9-year-old Pablo piled his aspirations on the tinder. He told his father he wanted to play in the World Cup for the USA. The reply: "Son, dare to dream. It's got to be in your dreams first."
"My dad," Mastroeni says, "was definitely the greatest influence in my professional career."
Now 28, Mastroeni is a World Cup veteran for the U.S. team playing in the Gold Cup, the tournament that gave flight in 2002 to the father-son fantasy.
When the USA opens Thursday against Cuba in Seattle (11:45 p.m. ET, Telefutura), U.S. coaches will be looking for others who, like Mastroeni, could wow them come World Cup time next year.
First-round Gold Cup games also will be played in Miami, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston. The final, which will crown a regional champion among 12 teams from North/Central America and the Caribbean, is July 24 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Watching with emotion
Frank Mastroeni will watch the U.S. games with his heart in his throat, wanting to choreograph his son's every move, wanting him to hear his cheers above all others, wanting to tame his own churning fervency long enough to see the entire game.
He left early in the second half of Pablo's first World Cup appearance, the USA's world order-toppling 3-2 victory against Portugal, driven away by fear that Portugal would come back to win.
"Sometimes he says, 'I know, Dad, that you suffer for a game a lot more than I do,' so there are things you cannot really explain why and how you feel. There is no explanation really," says Frank, never a noted player but always a knowledgeable fan.
Entering the 2002 Gold Cup, Pablo was an accomplished Major League Soccer player but new to the national team pool. In four games as a starting defender, he dashed any doubt over whether he belonged by helping the USA shut out its opponents on the way to the Gold Cup title.
Mastroeni was the only U.S. player not to play in any of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, but he started against Portugal, the USA's opener, in place of injured midfielder Claudio Reyna. While jogging onto the field for warm-ups, he spotted a banner in the stands that read like sweet déjà vu.
"Dare to Dream," was its message. "Pablo We Love You. Mom, Dad and Family."
"That's one of the single greatest moments of my life," he says.
It was a stirring foreword to a World Cup in which Mastroeni, dreadlocks flailing, rose from unknown to indispensable on the national team scene. A midfielder for MLS' Colorado Rapids, he missed the USA's last two World Cup qualifiers with a quadriceps strain but is a U.S. roster mainstay. He's scheduled to reappear with the national team in the Gold Cup.
"He really has the defensive responsibility in the midfield," U.S. coach Bruce Arena says. "Three years later, he's certainly a better player for all the experiences he's had."
Three years later, he's not as focused on scaling the seemingly quixotic visions he shared with his father. Mastroeni wants nothing more than to remain grounded, to peel back any star labels and live and play under an anonymous guise.
He converses much more freely about his vegetable garden, the songs he has written, life with the high school sweetheart he married and their new baby boy than he does about his fast track with the U.S. team.
"I have the same mind-set now that I had when I was trying to make the last World Cup team," he says. "I never feel like I'm part of the team. I always have to go out and reinvent myself and prove myself -- not only for the coaches but for me -- to have confidence in my own game."
Says Arena: "He's not resting on his laurels at all. He takes every game as a challenge."
Pressure to succeed
Mastroeni's first challenge in soccer was to cut his own path while following his father's passion. Frank Mastroeni put a plastic ball between his eldest son's feet when he was 2 and encouraged him to dribble it through the hallways of their house.
"My dad lived vicariously through me," the younger Mastroeni says. "Growing up, I always had a lot of pressure to perform through my dad."
Mastroeni was born in Mendoza, Argentina, but his parents, both of Italian ancestry, moved to Arizona when he was 4. Frank Mastroeni worked in his own father's business, running grocery stores, and wanted something different. He joined a brother-in-law in the plumbing business in Phoenix.
Despite their life in a new country, Frank's dearest wish was that Pablo play for Argentina's national team. He helped arrange for Pablo to train briefly in Buenos Aires when Pablo was in high school. He urged him to consider offers he received during that trip to play for the country's elite club teams. Pablo said no. His father was disappointed but understood.
"I wasn't prepared to take on the pressures that come along with playing professional soccer at such a young age, knowing that I still wanted to go to college and experience college life and just basically live the American dream," Mastroeni says.
Voted Arizona's 4A high school player of the year in 1993, he played for North Carolina State. The Miami Fusion picked him 13th in the 1998 MLS draft and made him a starting defender. Colorado picked him first overall in the dispersal draft, when the Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny folded, and uses him in the midfield.
"The way Pablo has pushed himself and adapted to whatever circumstances he needed to get through injury or other things, he's done really well with it," says Clint Mathis, Mastroeni's roommate during national team duty the last four years.
Fans who remember Mastroeni from the 2002 World Cup will have to adapt to his new, closely shorn look. With the dreadlocks, Arena says, "He looked like a very casual type of guy, which he is, in a way. He certainly has other interests away from the game. But he's become a very dedicated professional. First impressions sometimes clearly don't tell the whole story."
Mastroeni and his wife, Kelly, sow a 12-foot-by-12-foot herb and vegetable garden every spring. He shares the surplus with neighbors and his Rapids teammates. He has cooked for his U.S. teammates during training camps, drawing on methods learned from watching Emeril Live.
"I have a big surplus of 'Bam,' " he says of host Emeril Lagasse's signature spice mix, "and I use it in most of my foods."
Mastroeni also plays the acoustic guitar and composes songs. He is learning how to trade commodities and how to be a father.
Four-month-old Gianluca, not quite 5 pounds when born premature, was named after a giant of the game, Italian goalie Gianluca Pagliuca.
In little Gianluca, the Mastroenis have a new generation to fill with their passion.
"As soon as he's walking," Frank Mastroeni says of his grandson, "we're going to have to get a ball and start training him."
CONCACAF Gold Cup: The top two from each group based on points (3 for a win; 1 for a tie), along with the best two third-place teams, advance to the quarterfinals to be played July 16-17 in Foxboro, Mass., and Houston. The semifinals will be played July 21 and the final July 24 in East Rutherford, N.J.
Groups: A -- Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Colombia; B -- United States, Costa Rica, Cuba, Canada; C -- South Africa, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica.
Sites: Orange Bowl (Miami); Qwest Field (Seattle); Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.); Reliant Stadium (Houston); Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum; Gillette Stadium (Foxboro, Mass.); Giants Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.).
U.S. schedule: Thursday vs. Cuba, approximately 10:45 p.m. ET, Telefutura; Saturday vs. Canada, 4:45, Telefutura; Tuesday vs. Costa Rica, 7:05, Telefutura.
U.S. history: The Americans have played in all seven Gold Cups, winning twice, in 1991 and 2002. They have the most victories in tournament play (24) and are the only CONCACAF team to win all of their first-round group matches, 16-0-0 since 1991. The USA finished third at the Gold Cup in 2003.