When Clint Mathis signed with the German club Hannover 96 in January 2004, he was at the forefront of an MLS exodus. Over the next 11 months eight of Mathis's fellow U.S. team members, including World Cup heroes DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, left the league for the more prestigious and lucrative fields of Europe. "One year ago, I honestly never thought I'd be back," Mathis says.
After falling out of favor with his Bundesliga coach, however, the flamboyant striker has returned to play for expansion club Real Salt Lake--at a time when MLS desperately needs him. After adding a second franchise in Los Angeles as well as RSL, the league enters its 10th season this weekend with 12 teams and few stars. As MLS waits for emerging young players like D.C. United's Freddy Adu, the MetroStars' Eddie Gaven and FC Dallas's Eddie Johnson to come fully into their own, a scorer of Mathis's caliber helps fill the void. "Clint really is a home-grown, MLS-created star, and we're very happy to have him back," says Ivan Gazidis, the league's deputy commissioner. "You never know what's going to happen when he's on the field."
During a six-year stint in MLS--first with the L.A. Galaxy and then with the MetroStars--Mathis established himself as one of the league's most gifted strikers, scoring 48 goals in 132 games. He also earned a reputation as a head case, notorious for run-ins with referees, opponents, coaches and fans. After Mathis earned a red card for kicking a D.C. midfielder in 2002, MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano said that his player needed to see a psychologist. Mathis's departure from Hannover was hastened last September when, after coming on as a late substitution in a game against FC Schalke, he celebrated his game-winning goal by running toward his bench, grabbing his crotch, then pointing to an imaginary watch on his wrist, indicating that he should have been playing earlier. "Everything started out great in Germany," says the 28-year-old Mathis, who never played a minute after his display. "But it wasn't the best of situations by the end."
Mathis claims he came back to MLS solely because Salt Lake's coach is John Ellinger, the former architect of the U.S. under-17 program, for whom Mathis played in 1997 at the World University Games. "He's honest," says Mathis, who could have gotten more money from interested clubs in Germany. "He lets you know where you stand. That's what every player wants."
Ellinger is thrilled to be reunited with Mathis. "He was our Number 1 target this winter," says the coach, who will also be working with MLS stalwarts Eddie Pope, Jason Kreis and Andy Williams. "He doesn't have to prove anything to me. Clint's a playmaker, an impact player."
With its veteran talent, Salt Lake figures to outperform the league's other expansion franchise, CD Chivas USA, a spin-off of Chivas, one of Mexico's most popular teams. Chivas USA, which will share the Home Depot Center with the Galaxy, is owned by flamboyant Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara, who has stocked his roster with Mexican league veterans. "Chivas will bring an entirely new look to the league," says Gazidis. "We've got a lot of young, hungry talent from Central America. Their style is more technical than the athletic play MLS fans are used to."
The possibility also exists that Mathis will be joined in MLS this season by at least one other expatriate. On Sunday a report surfaced that Donovan--unhappy with his lack of playing time for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany--would return to the league, possibly before opening day. Gazidis, who negotiates all international and domestic player contracts, declined to comment. While such a move would lighten the marquee load on Mathis, he nevertheless seems happy as the face of not only an expansion team but also a league. "That's not a problem with me," he says. "It comes with the territory. I don't set individual goals anymore. My main job is to go out and win ball games. I want to get a championship ring on my finger." ‚ñ†