For Clint Mathis, the next party is never far away. His favorite
spot in his West Paterson, N.J., town house is the basement,
where he has Bud and Bud Light on tap. Since May 2000, when he
was acquired by to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, he has
become a habitue of Manhattan's clubs. On those rare occasions
when he answers his cellphone, it's usually to address his
social life. Cruising along the Garden State Parkway recently in
his black BMW SUV, Mathis muted the rap pulsing from the radio
and answered a teammate's call with a question. "Wachoo got
goin' on tonight?" he said, a slight Southern twang in his voice.
Mathis was returning from an appearance at a suburban soccer
league clinic, where he had listened intently as schoolgirls
posed questions about soccer heartthrobs. Dribbling an
undersized ball over a bumpy field and wearing a baseball cap
backward, the 5'10", 170-pound Mathis could have passed for a
high school junior--an innocent one. He looked like sweetness
itself. When he scored a goal in a one-on-10 scrum, a soccer mom
peering through a telephoto lens called out, "Take off your
shirt!" His response was an aw-shucks grin, a staple of his
make-everybody-happy boyhood in Conyers, Ga.
Now, weaving through the twilight traffic, defying the speed
limit to get on to his evening, Mathis looked closer to his
actual age. (He's 25 and single.) He blew by a Taurus and into
wide-open space. Had he been on a soccer pitch, you would have
said his chances of scoring were excellent. "You're changing
your plans," Mathis told his caller. "I got something good for
you tonight. Remember that girl, the singer? We're gonna meet up
with her and two of her friends for dinner at that Japanese
place in the city at nine. Be at my place by eight."
One day earlier Mathis had been officially invited to the
biggest bash in soccer, the 2002 World Cup, as a striker on the
U.S. team. Coach Bruce Arena has assigned Mathis one job: to put
the ball in the back of the net. Sometimes cast as a midfielder
in the past, Mathis is likely to spend most of his time up front
to take advantage of his fearlessness and flamboyance. The
right-footed Mathis will also take most of the Americans' free
kicks, which he can bend to astonishing effect, like a Randy
Johnson slider that darts at the last instant over the corner of
Mathis has a good shot at becoming the first U.S.-born scoring
sensation. Other than Eric Wynalda, who scored nine times in 29
matches for Saarbrucken in Germany's Bundesliga nine years ago,
Americans have had little success as goal scorers for high-level
European clubs. Soccer in the U.S. seems to stifle the wild,
egocentric personality associated with prolific scorers. While
players in other countries sharpen their skills in streets or
sandlots, American kids tend to develop in highly structured
leagues, where equal access to the ball is an organizing
principle. A player who controls the action or racks up too many
goals may be seen as a ball hog and find his role diminished.
Fortunately for Mathis, he had two older brothers, Phil and
Andy, who forced him to use his left foot and encouraged his
recklessness. Clint has the speed and skill to shake
defenders--his 60-yard dash through the Dallas Burn's defense
last year was honored as the MLS goal of the year--and the
instincts and nerve to take shots others wouldn't consider.
Since returning to play on March 2 after surgery in June 2001 to
repair his torn right ACL, Mathis had scored six times in eight
matches for the national team through Sunday. On May 16, in a
tune-up against Jamaica, Mathis came off the bench to start the
second half. The first time he touched the ball he launched a
16-yard rocket into the net.
Teams overseas are already interested in signing Mathis and
tripling his MLS salary of $200,000, which is $70,000 below the
league maximum. (MLS players are under contract with the league,
not its teams.) His new employer would also negotiate a transfer
fee with MLS, likely to be worth around $5 million, 10% to 20%
of which would go to Mathis. While the league would like to
retain its homegrown talent, the lure of euros may prove too
overpowering. "Anyone who can do the things Clint can do is
going to be in demand," says MLS deputy commissioner Ivan
Gazidis. "People are looking for a strong personality who can
impose himself on a game, and that's Clint. He's like Michael
Jordan, always looking for the ball."
Late last month Mathis flew to Germany, with his team's
permission, to spend a day talking to officials from Bayern
Munich, the preeminent team in the Bundesliga. "When Bayern
Munich say they want to talk to you, you go," says Chris
Brienza, the MetroStars' p.r. man. "If Manchester United are the
Beatles of European soccer, Bayern Munich are the Rolling
Stones." Mathis's agent, Craig Sharon, has also flown to Italy
to meet with officials from the Serie A club Perugia.
How Mathis fares in the World Cup will directly affect his value
on soccer's international market. Perhaps reflecting a
bullishness on Mathis, Bayern has expressed an interest in
getting a deal done with him before the tournament begins on May
31. "The World Cup can be overwhelming," says Wynalda, 32, the
U.S.'s alltime leading scorer with 34 goals in 106 games. "You
find out a lot about yourself, for good or for bad. I think
Clint will rise to it. He has so much fun playing, he lifts the
whole team. I love his spirit, talking trash on the field and
scoring, then dancing that night with some strange girl in the
middle of the street. If he stays healthy, he'll break my
scoring record, I'm sure of it. If he plays as well as he can in
the World Cup, all the great European clubs will want him."
Mathis would prefer to join the Premier League, because he likes
English soccer (it's fast and so is he), and there's no language
barrier there (to a point). He already knows his way around a
proper English breakfast, since it resembles the traditional
Southern breakfast his mother cooks for him on his frequent
trips to her new home in Covington, 30 miles outside Atlanta:
two fried eggs over medium, bacon, grits and a Coke, straight
from the can. (O.K., so it's not quite a proper English
breakfast.) She would prefer Clint use a glass for the vin
ordinaire, but Pat Mathis, divorced from Clint's father since
1988, doesn't make a fuss. She and her baby--Clint also has an
older sister--are exceedingly close. Pat has always given him
space, and he has always been a devoted son.
"Clint's been telling me for the last three years that if he
made the World Cup team, he'd buy me a plane ticket to come see
his games," says Pat, a manager for SunTrust Bank. The first
three U.S. games are in South Korea: June 5 against Portugal,
June 10 against South Korea and June 14 against Poland. If the
American team continues to win, its stay in Asia could extend
for another fortnight. "The first day of work this year, I put
in to take off the whole month of June," Pat says. "My
supervisor said to me, 'Don't you worry about one little thing.
If you make it, I'll cover for you.'" On June 1 Pat will make a
nonstop flight, Atlanta to Seoul. It will be her first time out
of the country since her divorce.
Clint's father, Phil, once a fire-and-brimstone preacher in a
rural Mississippi Pentecostal church and now an insurance
salesman, reckons some of his athletic skill fell to Clint. "I
could hit a baseball pretty good, and I was a kind of rugged
fullback, and in basketball I had a good outside shot," he says,
recalling his high school days in Milstead, a Georgia mill town.
He reckons some of his salesman's competitiveness rubbed off on
Clint too. More than once Phil has been honored for being the
leading producer in his district. "I didn't play soccer," he
says. "I'd never even heard of it. Clint took that up with his
brothers. When he first started playing, a regulation soccer
ball was above his knee--no lie."
Clint, who still says grace to himself before every meal, a
legacy of his upbringing, mocks his opponents with
uber-arrogance. While leaving a defender in the dust, he'll say,
"I hope your friends aren't here." There are also periods during
a match when he seems to do precious little. "All the while he's
making a plan," says Sigi Schmid, who coached Mathis when he
played for the Los Angeles Galaxy, his MLS team for three
seasons before he joined the MetroStars. Adds Wynalda, "He lives
by the Number 1 rule of the forward: Act dumb, be smart."
Well, not always. Schmid has talked to Mathis about his eating
habits, his evening habits, his fitness level (though he studied
exercise science at South Carolina) and his penchant for piling
up yellow cards by confronting referees and opponents. He
remains a work in progress. "I'm not too worried about the trash
talk, because no one playing for Portugal or South Korea or
Poland is going to understand him anyhow," says Arena. "I'm not
too worried about the cards, because that just shows his
competitiveness. I am worried about his work ethic. He doesn't
have a great work ethic. It took him nearly seven months to heal
from ACL surgery. Other players have done it in nine weeks. The
greatest players work the hardest. He's going to have to learn
that if he wants to play for a big club."
A striker may get only a handful of moments in which to prove
himself in a World Cup. A missed opportunity or two can destroy
a reputation years in the making. Mathis views this tournament
as his coming-out party. "This is the biggest stage there is,"
Mathis says. "I want people to get to know me. The thing is, I'm
two different people. Off the field I'm like my mom. We've got
the same free spirit. We like hanging out, being with people. On
the field I'm more like my father. I'm just so competitive, I
can't help myself--I'm a d---.
"The World Cup could change my life," Mathis continues, standing
at the door of his town house. "Right now I'm Joe Blow. Maybe I
wouldn't like all the attention that comes with being an
international soccer star, but I'd like to find out."
With that, he stepped into his house, slipped on a silk shirt
and stepped out for an anonymous night on the town, maybe one of
good or for bad. I think Clint will rise to it."
he'll say, "I hope your friends aren't here."