Sunday, August 8, 2010

MLS Loses Icon as Clint Mathis Retires

Clint Mathis, one of the memorable and beloved soccer players of his generation retired after starting Saturday’s Los Angeles Galaxy-Real Madrid exhibition match.

A career that spanned 13 professional seasons, Mathis was successful at the college, club, country, and international club levels. He had a nose for goal and carried along an iconic personality.

Mathis was a star for four years at the University of South Carolina. He scored 53 goals and added 15 assists in 58 total games, was a two-time All-American, set the school record as a sophomore with 25 goals in one season, and led the team to the NCAA tournament all four years.

His goal scoring prowess really progressed in Mathis’ time with Major League Soccer.

After being a first round draft pick of the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1998, Mathis finished his rookie season with five goals and 10 assists, establishing himself as a rising talent.

In 2000 he was traded to MetroStars where he quickly solidified his presence as one of the best playmakers America had produced.

The MetroStars had a dismal 1999 season but were instantly uplifted with Mathis’ arrival. He scored 13 goals and 13 assists in 21 games with the team that season, including an MLS-record five goals in one game against the Dallas Burn, en route to leading the team to the MLS Cup semi-finals.

The following season he won the MLS Goal of the Year (which would later be nominated for Goal of the Decade) for his incredible 60-yard run through defenders and bottom corner finish.

While Mathis was a member of the team through 2003, because of injury, national team duties, and transfers overseas and within MLS, Mathis would not make a significant return to the MetroStars, now renamed the Red Bulls, until 2007. His last goal with the club came in a thrilling 5-4 win over the David Beckham-led Galaxy in front of 80,000 fans at Giants Stadium. It also happened to break the franchise-record for goals scored in all competitions, at 45 (Juan Pablo Angel later broke Mathis’ record).

Mathis would finally win an MLS Cup championship with Real Salt Lake in 2009. His role was heavily reduced with the team, appearing as a substitute, but would play a key role in winning the championship match. With the score tied 1-1 after overtime, Mathis was selected to take the first penalty kick in the shootout and converted.

In 11 MLS seasons Mathis scored 67 total MLS-competition goals with the Galaxy, Red Bulls/MetroStars, Real Salt Lake, and Colorado Rapids.

He also made an impact overseas, acting as a goal scoring threat with Hanover 96 in the German Bundesliga and for Ergotolis in Greece. Mathis scored in his debut for both clubs and he scored four goals in his first five games with Hanover.

Mathis’ biggest goal of his career came in the 2002 World Cup. Representing the U.S., Mathis started the second game of the group stage against host-nation South Korea and scored after collecting a ball from the air and slotting it into the bottom corner, to give the United States a 1-0 lead and eventually a 1-1 draw.

Mathis’ goal scoring abilities absolutely captured the attention and imagination of soccer fans in the States, but it wasn’t the only thing about him. Mathis had quite a bit of personality to him that really made him remarkable.

In fact, it was a second personality that endeared him to fans.

Mathis adopted an on-field personality known as Cletus. Cletus was brash, was honest, and had flair. He would help Clint celebrate his success, but also would cause him to make some poor decisions. But all in all, they made Clint recognizable.

He was the cover story for Sports Illustrated's 2002 World Cup preview issue.

After Mathis scored his first goal with the MetroStars, he lifted his jersey to reveal an “I Love New York” t-shirt, expressing his dissatisfaction that the Galaxy got rid of him as well as making New York his new home and earning credit with the home fans.

Not only did Clint score in the 2002 World Cup, but he also sported a Mohawk that scored him instant recognition.

As for Cletus’ bad influence, he reared his ugly head while Clint was with Hanover.

In his second season with the German club, there was a coaching change and the new manager kept Mathis on the bench. One game, Mathis was used as a substitute in the last few minutes of the game yet almost immediately scored the game-winning goal. As for his celebration, Mathis ran to the sidelines in front of his bench and tapped his wrist, referring to a watch, how late Mathis entered the game, and what he could have done with more time.

Mathis started the next game, but never played for the team again afterwards.

All things considered, Clint or Cletus, goals or benchings, Mathis was a special individual. He had talent galore and was an entertaining character.

MLS and American soccer in general will miss a man that made such an impact on the game and an impression on its loyal fans.

Photo Credits.
Top: AP Photo/Yonhap, Jin Sung-chul
Left: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
Right: AP Photo/Christof Stache

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