When Clint Mathis was seven years old, his older brothers, Phil
and Andy, made a rule: Young Clint could play soccer with them in
their Conyers, Ga., neighborhood, but only if he used his left
foot exclusively. "They didn't want me to grow up playing just
right-footed," says Clint, the new It boy of American soccer.
Those days yielded comical scenes, as the towheaded kid in the
blue-and-white-striped Diego Maradona jersey scampered madly to
use his left. "Right foot!" his brothers would say when Clint
cheated, followed by, "Sit down!"
Lately those lessons have been paying off as Mathis, 24, has fast
become the first MLS-bred American star, an ambipedal forward
whose growing collection of highlight-reel goals has inspired
adoring New York/New Jersey MetroStars supporters to worship him
with religious fervor (his fan club is called the East Rutherford
Mathodist Church) and to break out in rapturous song (to the tune
of Guantanamera): There's only one Clint Mathis!/There's only one
Clint Mathis!/Only one Clint Maaaaa-this!
As of Sunday, Mathis was leading MLS with six goals in five
matches, and he's always a threat to score in bunches; last
season he set a league single-game record with five goals against
the Dallas Burn. In scoring a hat trick last week in a 4-1
victory over the Kansas City Wizards, he used his head, his right
foot and--you guessed it--his left. Beyond his heroics in MLS,
Mathis has had two goals and four assists in four World Cup
qualifying games while leading the Americans to a 3-0 record in
the region's final 10-game tournament.
Just as important, the quality of Mathis's goals matches their
quantity. Two weeks ago he embarked on a breathtaking 60-yard
slalom run past three Burn defenders for one of the most
electrifying strikes in U.S. soccer history. The goal, replays of
which were aired worldwide (and which can be seen at mlsnet.com),
evoked heady comparisons to Maradona. "I try to play on
instinct," says the soft-spoken, twangy-voiced Mathis. "I just
go. The moment I start thinking on the field is the moment I
start messing up."
"He's got so much confidence right now," says MetroStars captain
Tab Ramos. "Taking people on with the ball at your feet is the
hardest thing in the game. Clint has the full package--the flair,
the ability to change speeds--and I don't think any American
player has ever had that at age 24."
What's more, like many other top forwards, Mathis has a sense of
the dramatic, often disappearing for long stretches of games,
only to swoop onto the scene like a superhero when he's most
needed. During a Cup qualifier in Honduras in March, he played so
poorly that coach Bruce Arena let loose a stinging philippic at
halftime. "One of my worst games ever," says Mathis. "I might
have made two good passes." In the dying minutes, though, he
curled a world-class free kick over the Honduran wall and into
the net, giving the Americans a stunning 2-1 victory.
When Mathis left the field that night, Arena could only shake his
head and smile. "As a coach you pull your hair out," he says.
"Clint's completed pass percentage is the lowest on the team, and
he underperforms in a lot of statistical areas except the one
that matters most: He's involved in the plays that make a
difference. That's called genius. He has a lot of creative ideas
out there, and you have to allow that to blossom."
Mathis can throw a football 60 yards, but his brothers decided
the sport was too dangerous for him, so he stuck with soccer
instead, developing his instincts in youth leagues and through
hours and hours of kicking the ball--often in the house. (He broke
the glass door in the family's curio cabinet so many times with
wayward blasts that the repair man stopped charging for
replacements.) Though Mathis spent time with various U.S. youth
teams and played four seasons at South Carolina (three of them
with current national team striker Josh Wolff), he was hardly
expected to explode onto the American pro scene. As a part-time
starter for two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he never
scored more than seven goals.
His big break came last season when L.A. signed Mexican star Luis
Hernandez and, as a result, the then last-place MetroStars picked
up Mathis in an MLS-mandated dispersal draft. With 13 goals and
13 assists for the Metros, Mathis finished second in the league's
MVP voting and drew Arena's attention for international duty. In
fact, when Mathis and Wolff came on as early substitutes during a
World Cup qualifier against Mexico in February, Clint's mom, Pat,
called her longtime pal Sandy Wolff, Josh's mom, and said in her
wonderfully Southern way, "You'd better watch now, 'cause they're
fixin' to score!" Sure enough, Mathis's pinpoint pass set up
Wolff for the first goal in the 2-0 victory.
As the MetroStars have embraced Mathis, he has grown equally
fond of Gotham. Last year he wore under his uniform jersey an I
[HEART] NY T-shirt, which he exposed whenever he scored, and he
has been a regular at Broadway musicals and the WWF theme
restaurant in Times Square. "Everything has happened at the
right time for me," he says.
Still, you can never take the South completely out of the boy.
For a recent MLS commercial with Wolff, Mathis donned a cowboy
hat to pump up the Georgia Boys theme. He likes to wear his black
leather Harley-Davidson boots with his black Harley shirt with
his backward-turned black Harley baseball cap. (His contract,
alas, prevents him from actually riding a Harley.) Small wonder
that, with a nod to Mathis's mischievous side and his down-home
yes sir's, Arena gave him the nickname Eddie Haskell.
How MLS reacts to Mathis's newfound star power could have a
long-term impact on the six-year-old league. Will MLS, which has
lost $250 million since its inception, be a seller's league,
peddling its homegrown American stars to wealthy European clubs,
a policy that could drive away potential fans? Or will it take
the financial leap of faith required to keep those players?
Mathis is in the second year of a four-year MLS deal that ends
after the 2003 season, but a club could offer the league $4
million or more this summer to transfer him to the Continent.
"Playing in Europe has always been a dream," he says, "but I'm
happy here now and I want to win a championship with the
MetroStars. The reason Americans want to go to Europe is
financial. For MLS to move to the next level, it has to have
enough confidence to step up for an American player who has
developed here, to show this is a league that can compete in the
Mathis, who's single, recently closed on a town house in West
Paterson, N.J., where last week he showed a visitor the basement
he plans to redecorate as a giant rec room to host his teammates
and their families. "I can't wait for this to be ready," he said,
but you had to wonder if he'll be around to see it through.
Though he may soon be pulled in many directions, there's only one
Clint Mathis--and, as his growing legions of fans would attest,
that's a shame.
and--you guessed it--his left.