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Where Are They Now: U.S. MNT Forward Clint Mathis

U.S. Soccer is celebrating its Centennial year in 2013 and throughout the year will provide historical content to commemorate 100 Years of the Federation. “Where are They Now” looks back at the career of former National Team Players and catches up with them after their playing days have concluded.

Clint Mathis arrived in Los Angeles in 1998 as a brash 21-year-old, fresh out of the University of South Carolina and landing on a glamour team in its third year of Major League Soccer.

An outgoing personality from Georgia with a “southern twang”, he was a popular fellow, too popular to go without a nickname. So his teammates hung one on him: Cletus. It wasn’t a tag unfamiliar to Mathis, just one he had never been called.

“It’s hard for other rednecks to call you Cletus,” Mathis explained with the customary chuckle in his voice.

It was the start of a career that would span clubs in three countries, include the 2002 World Cup, two MLS All-Star Games, an MLS Best XI selection and eventually an MLS Cup title.

It also would include one of – if not the – most memorable goals in U.S. history, a left-footed strike against host South Korea at the 2002 World Cup that helped put the United States in the quarterfinals – the farthest it had advanced since 1934.

“I’ve seen a lot of goals. I’ve seen some great goals, but that was the greatest I’ve seen,” said Bruce Arena, the coach of the United States at the World Cup and now the manager of the LA Galaxy. “And the environment, against the host, in the World Cup…he was calm and collected, the way he received the ball…”

Mathis settled John O’Brien’s knee-high cross on the 18 with his right foot and on one bounce finished with his left inside the right post in the 24th minute to give the Americans the lead and result in a 1-1 draw. The goal elicited an excited reaction from television announcer Jack Edwards, who exclaimed: “That’s why he’s here!”

“I would agree,” Arena said. “That’s why he was there.”

Mathis was the sixth overall selection in the 1998 MLS draft, but after three seasons, the arrival of Mexican über-star Luis Hernandez made him expendable, and he was shipped cross-country to New Jersey and the MetroStars.

It was in the Meadowlands where Mathis became a fixture on the American soccer landscape.

In his first season, he set an MLS record with five goals against Dallas in a 6-4 victory. He tormented the Burn again less than a year later when he went on a 70-yard twisting, turning, solo slalom through four defenders before scoring what would become MLS’ “Goal of the Year”.

He endeared himself to the MetroStars’ fans by wearing an “I (love) NY” t-shirt under his jersey and flashing it after every goal. An intense competitor on the field, he was the player opponents and their fans loved to hate.

“Clint had an edge to him for sure,” former U.S. National Team goalkeeper Tony Meola said. “He was a fierce competitor, as fierce as I’ve ever played with. I respected what he did, but I hated playing against him.”

In June of 2001, one year before the start of the World Cup, Mathis tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a training session in Columbus, when he leapt to avoid a teammate making a tackle and landing oddly.

It was Mathis’ competitive drive that enabled him to return to fitness, the national team and got him to the World Cup. But it was also that edge that would cut short his first of two ventures overseas. After MLS rebuffed a transfer offer from perennial German power Bayern Munich in 2002, Mathis still left for the Bundesliga following the 2003 season, joining Hannover 96.

He scored in his debut and had four goals in his first five games. But manager Ralf Rangnick, who lured Mathis to Germany, was fired in March 2004, replaced by Ewald Lienen. By the new season, Mathis was relegated to the bench, an unaccustomed and uncomfortable position.

But late against Schalke, he was inserted as a substitute and quickly scored to give Hannover a 1-0 lead. Mathis ran toward the bench and tapped the back of his wrist, letting Lienen know he felt he should have been playing sooner. Mathis started the next game but never played for the first team again.

“When I’m on field, I’m emotional. I care about people. I wear my heart on my sleeve,” Mathis said. “There were other factors going on there behind closed doors. I probably saved that guy his job, but it didn’t do me any good. Looking back, do I regret it? I try not to regret anything.

“Was it the best decision? No. I didn’t agree with the manager and I definitely expressed my opinion. I’m not one to hold back.”

Mathis would return to MLS in 2005, signing with Real Salt Lake, then the Colorado Rapids a year later, and the renamed New York Red Bulls the year after that. He spent part of 2008 with Ergotilis of Greece before going back to RSL, where he helped the club win the MLS crown in 2009. He finished his career where he started, with the Galaxy in 2010, retiring just before his 34th birthday.

Injuries had taken their toll – including torn ACLs in both knees.

“A lot of meniscus tears,” Mathis said. “It was bone on bone in the left knee. You can only tear cartilage so many times.”

But it was not before he left some distinct impressions in American soccer’s lengthening and widening path.

“He was certainly, in my view, the most talented goal scorer in history of U.S. soccer,” Arena said.

“For me, over the last 30-40 yards, he was the most dangerous I’ve ever played with,” said Josh Wolff, a fellow Georgia native who played against Mathis in their teen years and with him for several years on the National Team. “He could beat you on dribble; he had pace to go at you.”

After taking time away from the game, Mathis began helping out with the Galaxy camp operations in 2012. This year he’ll be the supervisor of the department, getting help from Gordon Kljestan – Sasha’s brother – to oversee every facet from the 5-to-6 year olds to adults.

He’s an administrator, but the player and coach aren’t too far away.

“The parents get excited when they see I’m instructing their kids,” Mathis said when asked if he’s recognized by his younger charges. “The work I do with kids is about touching the ball. Most are hand-eye coordinated, but only one person [on the field] can use their hands. The others need to get as many touches with ball as they can.”

In December Mathis finished a special “A” license coaching course run every year by the U.S. Soccer Federation that is only open to former professional players, giving him the possibility to someday pace the touchline with the same intensity in a jacket and tie as he did in a jersey.

“I’m involved in soccer,” said Mathis. “It would be a disservice to take myself out of the game.” With the experiences I’ve had, the good, the bad and the ugly, I can pump my knowledge back in. I’m working with youth now, but with the right timing and the right opportunity, I’ll keep my doors open.”

--Brian Trusdell