If you’ve watched MLS since 1996, you’ve seen different reactions from teams that don’t make the playoffs. During the final games and training sessions, the body language for some players screams, “Get me a new shirt in a new city! I’m better than this.” Other players show humility and improve. Some quit.

Colorado Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni is making the most of this phase between the present and hereafter, cranking up individual improvement for the good of the team.

“When I spoke to the guys,” Mastroeni said before training on September 24, “I told them it’s about becoming better at your craft. Whether you’re a woodworker, a writer, a mechanic… whatever your craft is, it’s about investing in that craft. If individually, we can pick up one or two percent going through a stretch, then collectively this group will inherently become greater as a group.”

The training session on Wednesday was excellent. The goalkeepers worked hard with Chris Sharpe. Mastroeni used new techniques to improve communication among defenders. Brian Mullan ran finishing drills, and Steve Cooke emphasized transitions for midfielders. All the players boiled with intensity and purpose.

The Rapids finished the inaugural season with 29 points, the fewest in MLS. In 1997, head coach Glenn “Mooch” Myernick wisely partnered with Lorne Donaldson and the Colorado Foxes to pool Denver’s professional players for better training. Everyone improved. The Foxes played attractive, attacking soccer in the APSL, A-League, and USISL A-League from 1990 to 1997. By the end of the summer, the Rapids rose and had a great playoff run to the MLS Championship game (a 2-1 loss to D.C. United).

Fast-forward to 2014. With five games remaining, the Rapids are two spots below playoff qualification in the Western Conference. The math to make it at this point requires calculus, luck, and disastrous results from teams on top. For Mastroeni, the current challenges extend beyond the playoffs.

“So my focus is to not speak ambiguously about this thing called the team, the group,” Mastroeni said. “I don’t want to say ‘c’mon guys. As a team we really need to come together.’ It’s more about asking, what are you going to do to fine-tune your craft, your trade? Whatever your position is, you need to become a more complete player. You do it for yourself. And naturally if you make yourself better as a player, it makes a better group.”

Mastroeni understands how players react to ambiguity from a coach.

“It’s too big to address as a team,” Mastroeni said, noting how players hear appeals for change. “Everyone will think, ‘I’m already doing that, so he’s not talking to me.’ Or if I say something negative, they’ll think, ‘he’s not talking to me. He’s talking to somebody else.’ So the focus is on staying positive and getting better at your trade. Focus on that… sleeping better, eating better, thinking better, being clear-headed, watching more game tape for yourself… whatever it is to better your craft. Then come to training with a good attitude, and we’ll see what happens. Who knows where this game will take you?”

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