As Pablo Mastroeni prepared to get on the bus that sat idling in the bowels of Denver's Invesco Field on April 3, he wore an unmistakable it's-all-in-God's-hands-now look of relief. He'd just turned in what's becoming his hallmark—a rock-steady performance in central defense for the U.S., which beat Mexico 1-0 in a hard-fought game that qualified as a friendly only under soccer's strict definition of the word. With that, the 25-year-old Mastroeni's four-month tryout for the 2002 World Cup team came to an end. The Americans have just one more friendly before coach Bruce Arena plans to announce his roster for the World Cup in Japan and Korea, which begins on May 31. That game, against Ireland in Dublin on April 17, will primarily feature the Europe-based U.S. players. So the match against Mexico was the last chance for Mastroeni and the other MLS players who find themselves on the bubble to make an impression on the selection committee, i.e., Arena.
A year ago Mastroeni wasn't even an American citizen. ( Argentina-born, he moved to Phoenix at age four and was naturalized last May.) He was with the Miami fusion, and the only other playing he did was on guitar in the band Chicken Head Killas, a rap-folk outfit he formed with two teammates. Mastroeni is a free spirit; he proposed to Kelly Long on live TV at halftime of a Fusion game in September. So when Arena gave him a chance to play his way onto the World Cup team by including him on the roster for the Gold Cup tournament in January, the laid-back Mastroeni was eager but not overexcited. "I said from the start I wasn't even supposed to be there," he says. "Then I felt I was getting better in every training camp, and it escalated to where I was getting more games in and feeling more comfortable with whomever I played with in the back."
In his six games for the U.S. this year Mastroeni made a strong case for a spot on the World Cup roster. The Americans didn't give up a goal while he was on the pitch, and he never looked overmatched. (He's primarily a defensive midfielder for the Colorado Rapids, who made him the first pick in the MLS allocation draft after the Fusion folded in January.) But as well as he has played, Mastroeni might be at the mercy of a numbers game. Arena can take 23 players to the World Cup—three of whom must be goalkeepers—and while he doesn't have to submit his roster until May 21, he plans to pick his team well before then. In all likelihood, four of those taken will be central defenders. Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope are locks, leaving Mastroeni, Gregg Berhalter and Carlos Llamosa in the running for the other two spots. Llamosa, though unimpressive of late, is the most experienced of the trio and was a regular during much of World Cup qualifying. So Mastroeni's fate may hinge on how Berhalter, who plies his trade for Crystal Palace in the English First Division, does against Ireland.
While Mastroeni's performance against Mexico gave Arena a selection headache, the showing of one of his attacking players, Clint Mathis, had to make him feel sublime. Mathis scored the lone goal of the game, marking his seventh consecutive start with at least a point. Incredibly, four years after scoring only one very ugly goal in the World Cup, the U.S. now considers its strikers to be a strength. In January, Mathis and Brian McBride, who netted that lone goal in 1998, each returned from a serious injury: Mathis had torn his ACL last June, and McBride had had surgery to repair a blood clot last August. ( McBride has also broken both his cheekbones, a testament to his willingness to stick his nose just about anywhere to win a ball. "He puts his body out on the line, and that makes him injury-prone," says Mathis.) The two form a tough big man-little man combination, as the 6-foot McBride is easily the best American player in the air. "That's good for someone like me, who's a little bit smaller and tries to sniff out the second balls," says the 5'10" Mathis. "Or he knows I like to play the quick one-two, so he'll post up a little bit. He's a bigger guy, and he uses his body well up front. It's easy for me to work off a guy like that." The one full game the duo has played together this year was a 4-0 dismantling of Honduras in March, in which McBride set up both of Mathis's goals.
McBride sat out the game against Mexico with a sprained left ankle, an injury that also kept him out of the Americans' 4-2 loss to Germany on March 27. His presence was sorely missed in that match, in which the Germans pushed the undersized Yanks all over the pitch. That manhandling by Germany is cause for concern: Poland and South Korea, two of the three teams the U.S. will face in the group phase of the World Cup, play very physical games.
Against Mexico, though, the Americans showed they can battle through the rough stuff. The match was by no means pretty. At the half the U.S. hadn't taken a shot and could have been down 2-0 had it not been for the Mexicans' inability to finish. The U.S. broke through in the second half when Llamosa played a long ball into the penalty area for Mathis in the 66th minute. Mexican keeper Oscar P�rez and defender Manuel Vidrio collided, leaving Mathis all alone to finish into an open net. Suddenly down a goal, the always chippy Mexicans got even chippier. DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S.'s 126-pound midfielder, was nearly cracked into two 63-pound midfielders by a brutal challenge from Mexican defender Melvin Brown, and the game ended with American defender Frankie Hejduk and Mexican midfielder Alberto Garc�a Aspe receiving matching red cards, Garcia Aspe for throwing a forearm and Hejduk, apparently, for absorbing it with his jaw.
Arena was clearly pleased that the U.S. was able to win ugly. "This was a day on which the soccer wasn't great, and you had to have a big heart to win," he said. As for what the game told him about the fate of the bubble boys, Arena opted for his standard poker face, with its hint of an I-know-something-you-don't-know smirk. "Without a doubt," he said when asked if any decisions had been made clearer. Then came the smirk. "Nothing I can state publicly."
He'll fess up soon. Until then Mastroeni won't be sitting on pins and needles. "I definitely won't dwell on it and lose sleep over it, because it's something that's out of my control," he says. "I just moved to Colorado, I have a super wife, just bought a home, so if I don't have two months of hectic football for the World Cup, it'll be a beautiful time to relax in Denver. I can't lose either way. Of course you want to play in the World Cup because it's your dream, but if not this one, there's always the next one."