For U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, the Mexico rivalry sparks some of the finest memories of his international career. The two-time World Cup veteran was on the field for the USA’s greatest triumph in the series history, the 2-0 win in the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup. The 30-year old has many Mexico battles under his belt, and adds his own little bit of latino spice to the mix as the only native Spanish speaker on the roster. Now just one week away from resuming the rivalry, Mastroeni sat down with ussoccer.com and recalled some of his favorite moments, talked about what makes a Mexico game so special, and discussed the role that leadership plays in matches like these, particularly his own…
ussoccer.com: How has training camp gone so far since the team got back to California?
Pablo Mastroeni: “Training camp has gone really well. It’s been very intense this second go around. We kind of picked up where we left off from the first training camp. We’ve tried to work more tactically this camp, where the first camp was more focused on fitness. However, they still find away to put a lot of fitness in and make sure we are getting that aspect as well. Overall, it’s been a great camp. The attitude is great, and we’re just chugging along.”
ussoccer.com: A good start to the year with the 3-1 win against Denmark. Looking back, what went right and what went wrong in that game?
PM: “We had a tough first half adjusting to the style of play of the Denmark team. They were more organized than we were in the first half. I think that was going to be a part of the whole test of this game. We didn’t have a lot of time to get to know each other, to work on fitness, or work on tactics. The bright spot was in the second half we turned it around. We were a little more connected, we were a little more focused, and were able to shut down their midfield and play better in the second half than the first.”
ussoccer.com: There’s a lot of young players in this camp that might be getting their first taste of what playing in a Mexico game is like. What do you say to them about playing Mexico?
PM: "Words really don’t bring into perspective a game of this magnitude. It’s something you have to experience on your own. They will get a first-hand taste of what it’s like to play Mexico on American soil. It’s not really a pro-American, and it’s something you have to grow accustomed to in this country unfortunately, but it’s something that I’ve kind of thrived in. Whether they are rooting for us or rooting for them, they are fanatics of the game, and it kind of brings out the best in most players. It’s going to be a great experience for everyone, especially for the guys who are getting their first taste of it.”
ussoccer.com: Do you remember what it was like the first time you played against Mexico and got that kind of reception?
PM: “The most vivid memories were in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. I remember pulling up to the stadium and it was obviously pro-Mexican. The horns were out, the chanting started an hour and a half before the game, and the moment we stepped out on the field we were getting whistled at and booed. It was a domestic team for the most part, and we just came together in a few days and put together a performance that was basically the guys finding a way to win and competing at the best level they could against a really good Mexican side. I think we really surprised ourselves that in that environment we could perform as well as we did and get the kind of result we did.”
ussoccer.com: While the U.S. plays a lot of friendlies, do you think you learn more playing a friendly against Mexico and getting that kind of performance and that kind of result?
PM: “I think so. Anytime you beat Mexico it feels as good as wining a qualifier. I think it’s because of what Mexico has done on the international stage, and the fact that we’re rivals and we’re neighbors. It’s about who is going to show up – Mexico or the U.S. I think we take great pride in the challenge as Americans to beat one of our biggest rivals any chance we get. We’ve done that quite a bit in the last few years, and hope to keep building on that.”
ussoccer.com: What does it feel like for you personally to play against Mexico?
PM: “Another one of my fondest memories is from the 2002 World Cup. I remember that game, putting in 90 minutes battling versus Cuauhtemoc Blanco and some other guys… Everyone had their own individual battles to win that day. After looking across the locker room and going out as a team to the bus and seeing Mexico with their heads down - it’s the kind of feeling that gets me motivated for this game: to know that we beat a team that was playing really well and was supposed to beat us that day, overcoming all the odds and putting together a great performance as a team. Seeing their faces on the bus motivates me to want to get that feeling back every time we play against Mexico.”
ussoccer.com: We talked about the fact that there could be a lot of younger players involved in this game for their first time. How important will be the leadership of the veterans when you step out on the field in Phoenix?
PM: “It’s critical in this game that the veterans step up and make sure they put a stamp on the game early. Hopefully by doing that, the younger guys will feel less pressure to have to perform, to have to do something right away or to get involved. The more touches they get early, the better it is for them. Like I said, it’s important the veterans do a good job of getting the ball, moving the ball, and being fluid and not hiding behind players, and getting in on tackles. We need to make sure the young guys follow in our footsteps and be real leaders out there."
ussoccer.com: Not only will there be new players for this game, but also a new coach. What do you tell Bob about going into a Mexico game?
PM: “As a player I never really contemplated what I could say to a coach. I think he’s coached in some pretty big games himself, and he realizes the magnitude of this rivalry. He’s done really well with us, getting our minds focused these last few weeks and realizing that it’s more than just one or two games, that it’s all a step in the building process. Come the Mexico game, we all have to be firing on all cylinders, including the coaching staff.”
ussoccer.com: You’re playing a game in Glendale, which is just outside of Phoenix where you grew up. It’s the first time in your professional career where you are essentially getting to play at home. How much are you looking forward to that?
PM: “I think it’s great. It’s been since my senior year in high school since the national team played in Arizona. I attended that game, and actually played before the national team game. I remember thinking to myself that it would be so awesome to play here in front of my family and friends. I’ve received phone calls from people I haven’t heard from in 10 or 12 years that want to come to the game. It’s spectacular. I have a lot of friends and family that don’t’ get the opportunity to travel abroad or travel to different states to watch qualifiers. So it’s a great opportunity for the family to come together and root on one of their own.”
ussoccer.com: How many ticket requests so far?
PM: “So far we’re at 65, and that’s just family. Its going to be interesting to see how many tickets I can get with all my coaches and teammates from club soccer, and then all my high school buddies that I grew up with.”
ussoccer.com: You have been through two World Cups and have 51 caps. At this point, you are one of the people expected to have a bigger leadership role in this four-year cycle. How do you see your leadership role?
PM: “I think the leadership role takes place on the field. As far as off the field stuff, I’m pretty reserved. I keep to myself for the most part. I, still at this point in my career, feel like I have to prove myself every day. Whether that’s being a leader or being realistic, that’s what I do. I still take practice very serious. These young guys are getting better every day, and I think the moment you get caught sleeping, you’re on the sidelines rooting for these guys. I think my job as a leader is to lead by example, and prove to not only the coaching staff but the players I play alongside that I can still play at this level and get better and help them along.”
ussoccer.com: It’s been very intense training so far, and you have been through these games before, but when do you start getting juiced a little bit for the Mexico game?
PM: “The moment we land into Phoenix, the juices will start turning a bit. For now, we’re still here in California and the preparation is still in the back of your mind. The moment the plane it hits the tarmac, the focus is there. Regardless if there is a Super Bowl going on, you realize in a few days you’re going to be taking on one of your greater opponents in a stadium that is second to none in this country.”
ussoccer.com: Clearly Mexico is taking this game very seriously, having brought in essentially their best team. It’s also the first match for new coach Hugo Sanchez. What do you expect the game to be like?
PM: “I think this game is going to be chippy from the start. It’s going to be a battle in the midfield. It’s going to be a battle all over the field. I think the team that wins more 50-50 tackles, the team that does little things right, the team that wills themselves to make the extra run, to get in on that extra tackle, and to make the great pass is the team that is going to win . It’s not as much who you have on the field, but what those guys are doing to help their team win. Regardless of who they bring in, we have a team that prides ourselves on great team spirit. You’re going to get 110% out of everyone that puts on the American jersey.”
ussoccer.com: The U.S. has had great success against Mexico at home over the last six years. Do you think there is now a psychological advantage for the U.S. team here?
PM: “I think so a little bit. Having said that, every game is different, posing different threats and different situations. But the mindset will always be there that we have done well in the last few games and we need to continue to do so. These last three weeks here have really tilted the bar a little bit in holding ourselves accountable for the little things that can make a difference on the big day.”