The following players could make the difference in the pursuit of the World Cup.


As a gardener, Pablo Mastroeni knows all about 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 United States national team defender has timed things perfectly.

That’s why he is here, at the World Cup, although the thought would have been unimaginable to him only a few months ago.

Mastroeni was playing in Major League Soccer, as a central defender for the Miami Fusion, when MLS folded the team. It was the low point in a budding career for Mastroeni, who was born in Mendoza, Argentina, of Italian heritage, came to the U.S. at age 4, and was raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where he later was taught soccer by 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 it [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 along with his love of soccer and his love of gardening, he also has a love of 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 former red-haired, red-goatee’d 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."

One of those wishes might come true as early as June 5, when the U.S. opens against Portugal in Suwon, South Korea. It’s a longshot, but Mastroeni could start in defensive midfield if Coach Bruce Arena elects not to start 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley on the left flank and plays John O’Brien there instead.

Playing in a World Cup game would be an incredible leap for a player who only received his U.S. citizenship early in 2001, who only made his national team debut against Ecuador last June 7 and who did not play in any of the U.S. team’s 16 World Cup qualifying matches.

The key was the 12-nation Gold Cup, which the U.S. won at the Rose Bowl in February. Mastroeni literally 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 is as much due to Colorado Coach Tim Hankinson as to anyone that Mastroeni could get a World Cup start. He moved Mastroeni from a central defender position to a defensive midfield role.

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