Western Wolfpacker

At 34, Pablo Mastroeni is one of the more veteran members of Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids. But that doesn't mean the NC State product is ready to hang his spikes up.

In fact, the veteran midfielder comes off a year where he helped lead the Rapids to the 2010 MLS Cup title and now Colorado sets their sights on a repeat. However, Mastroeni isn't feeling any pressure to hoist the MLS Cup trophy for a second straight year.

"I can only speak for myself but personally, I don't feel any pressure to repeat. I think if we were [FC] Barcelona where we won the league handily and cruised through the playoffs without any problems, maybe there would be a little bit of pressure to hold that same type of level," he said. "But I think that for us, it's getting back to the same old things and trying to improve every game.

"Every game presents different issues that we need to address and I think that because we're a good tight group that we always continue learning. I don't think we've achieved the amount of success that we can achieve with this team. It's being humble. It's taking each game at a time and trying to improve with every game."

This season marks his 14th in MLS. Mastroeni's professional career started in Miami after the Fusion drafted him in the 1998 MLS Super Draft. Between 1998 and 2001, he played 100 games for the expansion side before the Fusion folded after the 2001 season despite winning the MLS Supporters Shield, given to the team with the league's best regular-season record. That year, he was also named to MLS Best XI, a huge honor for the ex-Wolfpacker.

But after the Fusion folded, he quickly caught on with Colorado and has solidified the center of the park for the Rapids ever since 2002.

Pablo has had a good run in the Rockies but admits last year's run to the MLS title was the ultimate achievement.

"I think that Gary [Smith] has done a very good job the last few years of bringing in quality people in the locker room," he said. "We have a very tight group and we have good, experienced players in the locker room who are all very good leaders and take these young guys under their wing.

"First of all, you have to have a good clubhouse. Whenever you have that, even if you have stretches like we did last year where we went 10 or 11 games I think without a win, you find ways to dig in and get points. But more importantly, you don't lose faith. You don't let a string of bad results derail your overall philosophy."

Colorado's run to the championship was even more impressive considering they were one of the last teams to qualify for the 2010 MLS Playoffs and also they had to do it by advancing through the Eastern Conference.

"I think we stuck true to our guns and found a way to sneak into the playoffs. That's the beauty of the playoff system-that a low-ranked team can actually win. So, by no means were we the most consistent team last year but we believed that we could win," Mastroeni said. "We got the right bounces at the right time. You need luck in the playoffs. Without luck, you won't go anywhere. We had the intention. We got the opportunity and we took it head on."

While it might have been some time since he last played in Raleigh, it's still a time in his life that he continues to remember quite fondly.

"Well, it's kind of a blur. I think that it was the first time I had moved away from home," he recalled. "There are a lot of different cultural aspects of the south that I wasn't really privy to. It felt like it was just one big community really and especially the soccer community is really tight. Out west, it seemed more like you're on your own. There wasn't a lot of community because there was such a transient population."

As a junior, he earned Second-Team All-ACC honors and then followed that up by earning First-Team All-ACC honors as a senior for a team that went 11-7 in the regular season and earned the No. 3 seed in the 1997 ACC Tournament.

"I think George [Taratini] always did a great job of recruiting players and instilling his philosophy in players. My freshman year, we really had a good class of characters," Mastroeni said. "We grew up with each other for four years and kind of figured things out. By the end, we believed in ourselves and had a lot of confidence. Unfortunately, the ACC Tournament didn't really validate that.

"The regular season, I just remember the fans coming out to the games. The whole school was involved. The run that we had in the ACC regular season was amazing in itself. It was definitely something special. I don't think anyone in the ACC thought we had a chance."

Later this year, he and the Rapids will be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League, an annual tournament reserved for the best clubs in North America. This will be his first time to participate in this renowned event.

"Yeah, it should be exciting. I know from speaking to a bunch of guys that have played in it that it really takes a lot out of the teams, especially in that part of the season where you're trying to make a run to the playoffs and trying to really find form but you find yourself traveling all over the Western Hemisphere to play these games," he said. "It's going to be interesting, especially for some of the young guys that haven't been able to travel a lot and play in different places.

"It's an eye-opening experience on many levels but one that I think that we'll take with open arms and figure out a way to get some results on the road, win games at home and somehow tie that in with a run for the playoffs. It's going to be challenging but it's something that I think we all welcome."

Mastroeni is no stranger to international competition as the Argentine-born midfielder has 63 caps for the U.S. National Team and has played for the Stars and Stripes in three different World Cups and also in a pair of CONCACAF Gold Cups.

And even though he still is a big contributor for the Rapids, he acknowledges that at 34, he knows his playing days won't last forever, so yes, he has been contemplating what to do once his time wearing the boots is over.

"I have mulled over the different ideas. After speaking to Benny Olsen over the weekend, he said as long as those legs keep turning, you've got to keep playing. There is a part of me that feels like it would be an injustice to the game not to contribute in some way at some level being that it's the one thing that I know," he said. "I know a decent amount but I haven't really found the niche that I feel most comfortable contributing to whether it's younger kids, college kids or at the professional level. I don't think you figure that out until you're forced to.

"For me, it's somehow staying involved with the game because the game has given me an unbelievable experience and I feel like I must give back. It's just finding whatever niche in the sport that I can contribute to is the question but I'd definitely like to stay involved in some way and some facet."

Throughout his first 13 years in Major League Soccer, Pablo Mastroeni has earned a well- deserved reputation as one of the best central midfielders in the league. He comes off a year where he and his Colorado teammates won the 2010 MLS Cup with an improbable win over FC Dallas in the league final in Toronto last November.

What's left for this NC State product? Several more productive seasons in MLS and then it won't be a huge shock to see Mastroeni make a successful transition into coaching. He realizes the beautiful game has given him so much and just wants to return the favor. Pablo epitomizes winner in everything he does and he remains a testament to the kind of players and individuals NC State soccer has produced and continues to turn out year after year.

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