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In Full Bloom

Suddenly a starter for the U.S., Mastroeni seizes the opportunity with a cool demeanor

June 09, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — As a gardener, Pablo Mastroeni knows what it's like to be uprooted and transplanted. As a soccer player, he knows the same thing.

As a gardener, Mastroeni knows the value of blooming at just the right time.

As a soccer player, the 25-year-old midfielder-defender has timed things perfectly.

Wednesday, he started against Portugal in the World Cup and helped the United States to a historic 3-2 upset victory. As recently as January, even watching such a game in person would have been unimaginable to him, let alone playing in it.

Mastroeni was playing in Major League Soccer, as a central defender for the Miami Fusion, when the league folded the team.

It was the low point in a budding career for Mastroeni, who was born in Mendoza, Argentina, of Italian heritage, was brought to the U.S. at 4, and grew up in Phoenix, where he learned soccer under the watchful eye of--coincidentally--a former Portuguese player.

But back to the gardening.

"My grandfather always had an amazing vegetable garden, and we'd just go out and pick the vegetables and make our own salads," Mastroeni said. "He brought [a love of the soil] back from Sicily.

"It was something I was always interested in, and I had so much down time that I figured I should be doing something more with my life."

So Mastroeni has a garden. He also has a guitar, because besides his love for soccer and gardening, he also loves music.

"Just kind of folksy stuff," he said. "A little bluesy. Just my own stuff."

The U.S. national team has a precedent here, a red-haired, red-goateed troubadour who made a name for himself before, during and after the 1994 World Cup.

"I'm not that good," Mastroeni said, laughing, then added: "When I grow up, I want to be like Alexi Lalas. I want to play in the World Cup, I want to play in Italy, and I want to be in my own rock band."

The first of those wishes came true Wednesday.

It marked an incredible leap for a player who received his U.S. citizenship only a year ago--"I never got around to it," he explained--who made his national team debut against Ecuador on June 7, 2001, and who did not play in any of the U.S. team's 16 World Cup qualifying matches.

And yet here he is, guitar and all, playing in the World Cup.

"I was ready to go," he said. "It was an intense game. We got some good breaks early, and it made the game easier in the second half. I think we surprised [the Portuguese]. They didn't take us as seriously as they should have."

The key to Mastroeni's meteoric rise was the 12-nation Gold Cup, which the U.S. won at the Rose Bowl in February. Mastroeni played his way onto the World Cup team, but his teammates on the Colorado Rapids--the MLS side that uprooted him from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and transplanted him to Denver--are not surprised.

"I think Pablo is a quality player," said Scottish striker John Spencer. "I always found it very hard to play against him. He's a good, tough competitor. Not dirty at all. Just 90 minutes of hard work and always fair. He'll be playing for his country for many years to come."

It was Colorado Coach Tim Hankinson who converted Mastroeni from a central defender to a defensive midfielder and thus helped him earn a place on the World Cup team.

Robin Fraser, a former U.S. national team defender, said Mastroeni took the change in stride.

"He's gotten better every game," he said. "He's more and more confident with the ball at his feet, with people around him. He's just brought a level of composure to our team that's been fantastic."

There's a man responsible for Mastroeni's versatility. Luis Dabo once played for Benfica, one of Portugal's most illustrious clubs. Dabo taught Mastroeni the game at the Santos Soccer Club in Phoenix.

"He's been my mentor all along," Mastroeni said. "Through college, I'd go back and train with him. He's a great believer in having technically sound players and then shipping them off somewhere where tactics could be preached. He's just an amazing guy."

Typical of Mastroeni's "cool" was his reaction to making the U.S. World Cup roster.

"It was a sense of calm," he said. "It wasn't so much of a surprise as everyone believed it was. I thought I'd played myself into a possibility. It was just a matter of the coach picking the players that would best fit his team. It was more of a tranquil, calming effect, knowing that there's another mountain to climb."

The foothills were scaled against Portugal. South Korea lies ahead Monday.

"It's not just 11 players, it's 60,000 fans in the stands," Mastroeni said. "But once you're on the pitch you really don't hear anything, you're just focusing on the game. I think if we go out and do what we need to do to win, I think we'll be all right."

Cool.

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