A Striking Pair America's futbol future rests at the feet of unlikely partners Landon Donovan and Clint Mathis

February 17, 2003

Lit by the crescent moon over Miami, U.S. striker Clint Mathis
has just shown a visitor his new tattoos--a five-inch-long sword
on each arm and the nickname CLEETUS scrawled across his upper
back--when the subject turns to his tatt-free teammate Landon
Donovan. Mathis, 26, and Donovan, 20, are the most talked about
men in American soccer, and perhaps will be for years. Yet they
have radically divergent appeals. "Landon's the poster boy, and
he deserves that," Mathis says in his Georgia drawl. And what are
you? he's asked. Mathis laughs. "Dennis Rodman," he says. "How
'bout that?"

Yes, Donovan and Mathis are ... different. One is scrubbed, the
other scruffy. If Donovan is Justin Timberlake, Mathis is Kid
Rock. Yet somehow the two have had little trouble staking out
common ground. "The first time I came into camp, I could tell
Clint was someone I'd like to play with," Donovan said before
last Saturday's 1--0 exhibition loss to Argentina, in which the
two were paired at forward for the first time. "That's when
soccer is fun--when it's all creativity and instinct and you get
spectacular goals. We have similar styles, and we read off each
other well."

Both face daunting challenges in 2003. Donovan will need to show
he made a wise decision by pressuring German club Bayer
Leverkusen to extend his loan to MLS's San Jose Earthquakes for
another two years. "For now it's the right move," Donovan says.
"I'm a motivated person, but I don't need to be successful there
to be satisfied. I've succeeded at the highest level."

Mathis's 2002 feats--he led the U.S. with seven goals and scored
in the crucial 1--1 World Cup tie against South Korea--were
dimmed by criticism of his fitness, his nocturnal habits and his
barking at referees. In response, he cut down his fat intake and
resolved on New Year's Eve (while watching fireworks on Hawaii's
Waikiki Beach) to recommit himself to soccer. The MetroStars
forward is in the last year of his MLS contract and would love to
spark Europe's interest once again. "I'm still the same Clint,"
he says, "but I know this is a make-or-break year, and the way to
deal with negativity is to shut everybody up by playing well."

It's up to U.S. coach Bruce Arena to figure out where they play
best together. "They're both talented," Arena says. "Clint's
probably a little better goal scorer and passer, and Landon's
more versatile because of his athleticism and fitness. I've
wanted to get them up top together. As Clint gets a little
fitter, he may be the guy to play in the midfield."

On Saturday it was clear that Mathis's revival isn't yet complete
(he made some sloppy plays under the wilting Argentine pressure)
and that Donovan's new international reputation has made him a
marked man (he was the only American whom Argentine coach Marcelo
Bielsa mentioned by name afterward). Despite one explosive
60-yard run and a few dangerous serves on free kicks, Donovan was
bottled up.

Yet, as Arena experiments with their roles, Donovan's and
Mathis's outside interests actually may be starting to converge.
When asked which European country they'd like to play in someday,
their first response is England. Donovan is talking about getting
a tattoo, and after he turns 21 next month, he says, "I'll go out
after the games, and it'll be more fun." In other words, maybe
Rodman and the Poster Boy aren't so different after all.

For more soccer coverage from Grant Wahl and SI, go to
si.com/soccer.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: GARY BOGDON FORWARD THINKING Against Argentina on Saturday, Donovan (left) and Mathis played up top together for the first time.

New Faces
Here are five players who weren't on the 2002 World Cup squad but
will be in the mix as the U.S. begins the long trek toward
Germany 2006.

CARLOS BOCANEGRA A Chicago Fire stalwart and former high school
football player, Bocanegra, 23, is fast becoming a mainstay in
the U.S. central defense.

TIM HOWARD Goalkeeper may be the Yanks' deepest position, and the
MetroStars' Howard, 23, could challenge incumbents Brad Friedel
and Kasey Keller in '06.

BEN OLSEN Sidelined for nearly two years by multiple ankle
surgeries, the 25-year-old D.C. United midfielder has returned
with the same vigor that made him a top prospect in 1999.

BOBBY CONVEY Only 19 but about to begin his fourth year with D.C.
United, Convey showed two-way flair and tenacity against
Argentina at left back.

TAYLOR TWELLMAN MLS's leading scorer in '02 as a rookie with the
New England Revolution, Twellman, 22, is still adjusting to the
leap from club to international soccer.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)