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Pablo Mastroeni on evaluating player fitness mid-match

“The psychology is so much more important than the physical,” says the RSL coach.

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo FC Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake coach Pablo Mastroeni is, without fail, an interesting figure in Major League Soccer, and it’s not a new thing. His quotes are often meandering and veer toward a talking point he’s interested in, and it’s inevitably an interesting journey.

For that, he often receives a lot of praise. Other times, he finds himself on the end of some criticism about his coaching philosophy.

Yesterday was one such day where his philosophy was questioned. I was, of course, one doing some questioning on Twitter, so I don’t mean to remove myself from that, but in the interest of fairness, I’ve transcribed a relevant portion from an interview Mastroeni did with Bill Riley on ESPN 700.

Rather than pick out a few scintillating quotes from Mastroeni here, I’d actually like to give you that transcript below. There’s certainly a lot that’s caught my ear. We gain — I think — a particularly good insight into Mastroeni’s thought process around player fitness and substitutions, and I suspect some will find it revealing.

Bill Riley: Every coach has a different philosophy and feel on substitutions. How do you, in a match like that — where do you get that feel, how much consultation do you do with your staff on the bench when it comes to making that first round of substitutions and getting fresh legs on the field?

Pablo Mastroeni: Great question. We’re communicating. I’m communicating with the staff as the second half starts, and we also have the physical metrics available to us. You kind of get a good understanding at this point as to what time in the game players start to tire. For me, it’s seeing it. Are we recovering right when we move the ball? Are we making those runs beyond the defense when we have the ball? The less you start doing those things, the way I look at it, fatigue is setting in and you’re trying to preserve. As a coach, I’m saying you don’t want to preserve. We want to blow it out. We want to go 100 miles an hour for 90 minutes if we can. It’s fatigue for me that really starts to set the tone, because I think, like you said, the first eleven were playing really well. It’s not a tactical change that we want to make, it’s fatigue. And Bobby was dealing with a stomach bug, so he was cramping. Chang didn’t train all week, so he was cramping. For us, in this particular game, it was more about fatigue than anything else. Obviously, there are some tactical changes that we need to make at times, and I’m always in communication with my staff and always talking about those things as the second half starts.

Riley: You mention it — you’ve got the analytical and the live time feedback you’re getting, too — biometrics, in essence. Such a different change from when you used to play. This is really the last five or six years. You’re weighing biometrics versus the eye test, too, right, because you’re looking at it, and what you’re seeing — but then you’re seeing the real live time numbers, too, right?

Mastroeni: Yeah. And sometimes my eyes will tell me, “he’s got a lot left in the tank,” and the biometrics will say, “he’s running on fumes.” But at that point, I’m saying the psychology is so much more important than the physical. Because if you believe you can still run, and the actions that you’re making are still dynamic, then I’m saying you’ve still got some gas in the tank. It’s when I’m going, “man, it looks like he’s not recovering the right way,” or “it looks like he’s not making those runs forward the right way,” and then I look back, and go, “how are his biometrics?” They say, “yeah, he’s in the red.” And then I’m like, OK, that makes sense. But you’re right, there are checks and balance. The one thing I will say that if my eyes tell me that the players are still going and can still move and run, then I don’t even ask about the biometrics. In other words, our performance will never say, “we’ve gotta be careful with this guy.” That’ll never be said. It’ll always be me, unless they see somebody grabbing their hamstring or somebody slowing down. But we’ll never use the data to validate the eye test until the eye test is observed.

Riley: Can you ever take a player on the pitch’s word for it, either? (Laughing) You were once that guy. Players never do want to come out, do they?

Mastroeni: It’s funny, during the game, Chang didn’t train with the team all week, suffered a concussion against New England — I was really (wary) of his level of fitness. I kept asking him, because he was close to the sideline, and he kept giving me the thumbs-up. And it’s almost like they know, “if I just give him the thumbs-up, he’ll just shut up and carry on.” He literally gave me the thumbs-up and then two minutes later, he cramped up so hard he couldn’t keep going. But again, that speaks volumes about the character of the player as well. It’s easy when, “ah, coach, I need to come out” — you don’t want players that want to come out. So, credit to the guys, they keep going.