Thursday September 3rd, 2009

SANDY, Utah -- The U.S. national team is in the Salt Lake City area this week for Saturday's important World Cup qualifier against El Salvador. But before I headed up to the U.S. training base in Park City, I sat down with a memorable figure from the team's past.

Clint Mathis is many things to U.S. fans. To some, he's the folk hero of American soccer, a Georgia-born sniper with wondrous technical skills who piled up a record five goals in a single MLS game, scored on ridiculous 70-yard runs, hit game-winning thunderbolt free kicks in places like Honduras, and silenced 65,000 South Korean fans with his goal (and his Mohawk) at the 2002 World Cup. How many U.S. soccer players have ever been as rampant for club and country as Mathis was for parts of 2000 to '02?

To others, Mathis is a player who failed to fulfill his vast potential, who missed his chance to become U.S. soccer's first international superstar. Hard to believe: It has been 4½ years since Mathis, now 32, last trained with the U.S. national team.

But Mathis is still playing, still producing on occasion for Real Salt Lake. He has two goals and seven assists this season, and every once in a while, he can produce a piece of magic that few U.S. players would even dream about. Mathis seems happy living here near the sparkling new Rio Tinto Stadium with his wife, Tracey, and their 13-month-old son, Maximus (named for the character in the movie Gladiator).

Over lunch at a Chinese restaurant here, Mathis and I talked about his Sports Illustrated cover, the '02 World Cup, the current U.S. team, MLS' refusal to accept a transfer bid for him in '02 from Bayern Munich and the U.S.' inability so far to produce a global soccer superstar. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

SI.com: I'm reading the new book by LeBron James, and he talks about how appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old changed his life. You weren't 17 when you appeared on the SI cover in '02, but how did it impact your life?

Mathis: Once I got on there, it puts you in a different echelon. They don't just put the average athlete on the cover of SI. Not only would I be more ridiculed for things I did, but I was definitely noticed a lot more, not just by my peers but by the public in general. I got to do some cool and fun stuff I probably never would have gotten to do before all that happened. Seven years later, wherever I go I'm still signing Sports Illustrated covers. We just went to Kansas City, and when I'm walking out, some guys asked me if I could sign their SI. It was pretty cool, just to see what I actually looked like with hair.

I don't think it necessarily changed my life as far as my beliefs and the way I live, but the media attention was growing, especially for that '02 World Cup. We haven't been able to produce a World Cup like we did in '02. And to be a part of that was a huge impact on my life, too.

SI.com: You scored one of the biggest goals in U.S. history at that World Cup against South Korea. What do you remember from that goal and that day in Daegu?

Mathis: I just remember Johnny O'Brien played a phenomenal ball. But what I'll remember most telling my grandchildren is, you couldn't hear anything during the game. There were 65,000 home fans screaming. You couldn't hear each other ask for the ball. And when I scored that goal, you could hear a pin drop. It was a really cool feeling. In sports, people always like to get the crowd up and to hear your fans, but in my opinion, there's no better feeling than to silence a crowd.

SI.com: Do you have any other memories of '02?

Mathis: Just being there with those guys. Everybody counted us out, even probably most of our home fans. Just being a part of that whole experience, you hope, as a country, that happens again. This [current] team has definitely showed some signs of weakness, and yet they've shown some signs of brilliance against Spain. That's all it takes when you get to the World Cup stage is having one of those games and having that confidence behind you. I think that first game against Portugal did that for our '02 team. Hopefully for Bob Bradley and the guys he's got there it's about timing, which all sports are.

You don't need to really be peaking now. You need to qualify for the World Cup but you need to be peaking next summer and get the first win under your belt like we did in '02, and the sky's the limit from there. You look at it, and the one game we should have won in that World Cup was against Germany, and if that's the case we go to the semifinals and play South Korea, which we'd gone 1-1-1 against in the previous year. And then we play them, have a good chance of beating them again and then we're in the final. And who would have thought the U.S. would be in the final?

It's just about the timing. Hopefully this new era of kids can withstand the pressure, because it is a lot of pressure. You've got a billion people watching you. I can't think of any other sport that has that. It's crazy to even fathom.

SI.com: You're still considered one of the most technically gifted players the U.S. has ever produced. Are there players you see on this current team who have that?

Mathis: You look at a guy like Landon Donovan; technically, he's phenomenal. Why hasn't it worked out in Europe? It could be personal reasons, I don't know. I told the kid a long time ago, 'You've gotta get outta here. You should be playing with the big boys.' Because he has that kind of talent. Clint Dempsey, I think, has some great technical ability. You could put those two guys over here and everyone else here.

And someone I think is going to be really successful, but it's two totally different positions, is Oguchi Onyewu. I think he's got the opportunity at AC Milan where he might not play for a long time, but just to be day in and day out with those guys and learn that mentality. When I played with Gooch, he was a younger guy, but he's made huge strides understanding the game. He's not just a big guy anymore who makes tackles. He's gotten so much better with his feet, smarter decision-making, and you can just tell that.

SI.com: I've always wondered, why is it America has not yet had an international soccer superstar, a guy who would go to Europe and really stand out for a top team? Mexico's Hugo Sánchez won five scoring titles in Spain. Dwight Yorke came from Trinidad to Manchester United and won the Champions League. What's it going to take for an American player to do that?

Mathis: I don't know. The American mentality is tough. You have so much to offer here. This is the best country in the world, and a lot of people want to live here. It almost spoils us in a way. I think sometimes that carries out on to the field and having that hunger because most of the countries around the world don't have the amenities that we have.

SI.com: If we look at you, Dempsey and Donovan, there are some similarities in the ways you grew up, without a lot a lot of money in your families and not the typical upper-middle-class soccer upbringing that we see in America. Is there something in common there?

Mathis: Yeah. It goes back to that hunger. When we grow up with nothing, obviously we want something out of life. You can take that with any sport, any business. It's just having that drive and not accepting no for an answer. I'm sure Landon and Clint can both say the same thing, but I've heard, 'Hey, you'll never be this' a million times. You just thrive off that so you can pretty much hold up the middle finger and say, 'F--- you, I can be this, I can be anything I want.' You've just gotta put your mind and effort into it. Us three, God gave us this talent, so we can choose to use that. It's not bad to have that mental drive as well as having the physical attributes that we have.

SI.com: When you look back at your own European experience, how do you view it now and do you still wish you'd had that chance with Bayern Munich?

Mathis: Oh yeah, 100 percent. I held a grudge on this league for quite a while because I don't think it was right. At that time, it was one of the biggest clubs in the world, it was perfect timing. I never would have had to work another day in my life. But at the same time, I might never have met my wife. I'm a big believer in God, and I think everything happens for a reason.

But now I've gotten to where I've let that go. I don't have a grudge anymore. Business is business. It just didn't turn out on either end of it the way I was expecting. I think that kind of caused a downfall in my career, just going, 'What am I doing playing here? These guys didn't treat me right.' So I held a chip on my shoulder for some time. Then I went over and played at Hannover, played well. It's one of those situations where a coach came in and brought his own guys in, and I got kind of the short end of the stick on that one.

I probably shouldn't have come back. Because what killed me was coming back to the U.S. and playing for Salt Lake the first year [in '05]. I was supposed to make miracles happen like I did when I was in New York. And as the game gets better and the league gets stronger it's harder to do that.

SI.com: You've got two goals and seven assists now, and Real Salt Lake in the playoff race. How are you feeling about things?

Mathis: I feel good. I think Jason Kreis has done an excellent job. He had kind of a tough job coming in, with people saying [former coach] John Ellinger made some mistakes bringing in players, and Jason's had to take time making trades and getting those players out and pretty much starting from scratch to rebuild this team. After what we did last year, we should have made the final, but it's one of those games you can hit the post six times and have a gazillion shots but if one doesn't go in, that's just the way soccer is. So it was unfortunate, but Jason has done a good job.

I don't think we've played as well as a team as we did at the end of last season, but all we have to do is make the playoffs. I think we have a bunch of good players, but we haven't reached our full potential. Right now, we're coming off a couple big wins, and it's all about timing. As long as you get in the playoffs, the way it's set up in this league, anything can happen.

SI.com: When was the last time you were with the U.S. national team, '05?

Mathis: The January camp in Colorado Springs right before they played in Mexico City.

SI.com: How did that end?

Mathis: It was kind of weird, to be honest with you. It was when I was just joining Salt Lake. I didn't personally have a very good season, but the second half I was playing pretty well, but the team didn't do well so it reflected on me. So with all the guys coming in I was out of the picture.

SI.com: I'd heard some vague stories of tension with you and Claudio Reyna.

Mathis: Me and Bruce Arena didn't have a problem. Everybody always thinks that. I've never really said anything about Claudio or anything. That might be in my book. That could go on for days. So I'll just leave it at that.

SI.com: When you look at what you've gotten out of your career and the talent you've had, do you look at your international career and think you could have gotten more out of it?

Mathis: Oh, 100 percent, for sure. It goes back to what I was saying about the Munich thing. I let that bother me too much. I mentioned this to my wife the other day: I wonder how much better I would have been if I'd gotten to train with those guys day in and day out. But I can't worry about it. I can't rewind the clock. I've just gotta keep going with what I've got. So I'm enjoying it here with the family.

SI.com: What you want to do the next few years?

Mathis: I'd like to play two more years after this season. I've got different business things going on. I don't know, I might go get my A license [in coaching] in January just to have it. But I think I might take off from soccer a little while.

SI.com: Very few people ever in their career ever have a stretch when they're basically unstoppable. That seemed like what you had in '00 and '01. What was that like?

Mathis: It's fun. You can say it's luck, or fate or anything you want. But when you put the work into it you make your own luck. In the Dallas game [in 2000], I took six shots and scored five goals. It's almost like a higher power that you don't even have control over. You're just running around and everything you touch turns to gold.

SI.com: There's a World Cup qualifier here this weekend. Is that weird for you?

Mathis: I haven't decided if I'm going to the game. I don't know if I want to spend $65 for a ticket. It's cool. I'm glad to see Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Findley in camp, guys doing what I was doing a few years ago. I know I'm older now. Do I think I could still play there? Yeah, with my ability with the ball and decision-making. Would it be easy? No. The guys are running up and down like crazy. I know what the difference is between the MLS and that. But I'm not upset. If I don't go to the stadium, I'll definitely watch it on TV.

SI.com: Some U.S. fans consider you a sort of folk hero of American soccer, a guy who would do these memorable things that few U.S. players could ever do. Is that something you embrace?

Mathis: Yeah. It's not a bad thing whatsoever for people to remember you like that. Obviously, I'd rather have people remember me like that instead of the people who say, 'He didn't use his ability.' Which isn't a bad thing either, just because they still respect that I did have a lot of ability. I think I still do. It's just harder now that I'm older. I'm happy with the life I've got. I'm still alive. I'm still here. I got to have fun along the way. I've got a beautiful wife and kid. What else do I want? Do I want $50 million in my bank account? It would be nice. But shoot, I might have more problems if I did.

SI.com: One last thing -- looking back on it, what do you think of your '02 World Cup Mohawk?

Mathis: I think it was probably one of the smartest subconscious things I've ever done. Because I wasn't doing it for recognition or anything like that. I initially did it just because of how tense everything was. I just screwed around with it, shaved my head and next thing you know, I scored a goal, and that picture will be around forever with my arms out. I still see it when I sign autographs. Too bad I can't even come close to growing one anymore.

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