Like James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause, Clint Mathis seems to find trouble wherever he goes. The enigmatic former MetroStar and current Hannover 96 striker only needed a year to wear out his welcome in Germany and has his bags packed for a return trip to Major League Soccer just a year after leaving.
MLS, Mathis and Hannover are working on finalizing a deal that will bring Mathis back to MLS, where he will play for Real Salt Lake. While it is still being worked out how much MLS will pay Hannover to acquire Mathis, the 28-year-old forward/midfielder is expected to return and try to stabilize a career gone wild.
Mathis started his Bundesliga career with a bang, recording four goals and two assists in his first eight games. Then, just as quickly, his play began to fade and the inevitable questions began surfacing about whether Mathis could be a legitimate force or if he would just flash and fade like a shooting star.
He struggled under new Hannover coach Ewald Lienen and earned a permanent ticket in Lienen's doghouse after showing him up with a gesture after coming on late and scoring a goal in early October. Lienen downplayed Mathis' gesture, which consisted of him tapping an imaginary watch as he yelled in Lienen's direction, but the damage was done. Mathis only played one more match and hasn't been in uniform in nearly two months. He learned the painful lesson that the antics he got away with in MLS wouldn't go unpunished in Europe.
With the only other option being to stay on as an overpaid practice body, Mathis began planning a return to MLS. He put in a call to John Ellinger asking him if he would have him. Ellinger, fully aware that his Real Salt Lake squad would be starving for star power, didn't hesitate to say yes. MLS, which has lost its best goalkeeper (Tim Howard), defender (Carlos Bocanegra), midfielder (DaMarcus Beasley) and forward (Landon Donovan) in the past 16 months, wasn't about to say no.
In fact, the league is set to go against its practice of punishing American players who test Europe before returning to MLS by preparing to make Mathis one of the league's highest paid players. All that is left now is for Hannover to release him from a contract that runs through the 2005/2006 Bundesliga season. It is something the club will gladly do, but not before making Mathis squirm and not before testing to see just how badly MLS wants Mathis back. In the end, however, the deal will get done. It will get done because Hannover wants to be rid of him and because MLS needs him back.
Mathis' quick departure from the Bundesliga would mark the latest in a series of disappointments for a player regarded as American soccer's top attacking player as recently as three years ago. Before tearing his ACL midway through the 2001 season, Mathis was a fun-loving, goal-scoring good old Southern boy. That was before the knee injury and failed transfer talks between MLS and Bayern Munich soured him.
When he returned in 2002, Mathis replaced the skip in his step with a chip on his shoulder, a chip that grew larger after Bruce Arena gave him a smaller than expected role in the 2002 World Cup. He returned to the Metros that season bitter and unfocused, leaving then-MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano to suggest that Mathis needed psychiatric help. Mathis showed signs of snapping out of his funk early in 2003, when he scored six goals in the team's first eight matches, but then the goals stopped coming. He didn't score a goal in his last eight matches as a MetroStar, and he left for Germany, promising to prove all his doubters wrong by starring in Europe.
So here he is again, the misunderstood rebel, headed for his last good chance at keeping his career from sinking permanently. The sad thing about his roller-coaster career is that he isn't generally a troublemaker. He is no Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest. Mathis is a funny and charming personality, known as the type of veteran player quick to embrace rookies and support struggling teammates. Unfortunately, he is also known for lacking discipline and having a problem with authority when things aren't going his way. You don't have to look any further than to his last two MLS coaches (Zambrano and Bob Bradley) to find two coaches who considered him nearly impossible to handle.
So which Clint will it be this time around? The skillful player capable of dazzling fans and scoring goals in bunches, or the moody Prima Donna who feels bitter because his career hasn't stuck to the storybook script he had envisioned so many years ago? The flashes of brilliance he is still capable of delivering remind you that he can still work magic, but too often those moments don't last. Fans are often left wondering if maybe, just maybe, he is incapable of being the consistently good player so many remember him being just four years ago.
It won't be enough for him to join Real Salt Lake and net a flurry of early goals. Only a solid all-star season, and contributions to the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifying efforts, will convert the masses who have written him off. He has risen to challenges before, but if Mathis fails to make the most of what will surely be his last chance at salvaging his career, he will have no one to blame but himself.
Agoos in, Pope out?
The MetroStars acquisition of Jeff Agoos appears to solidify a shaky defense that finished worst in MLS in goals allowed, but it also could signal the end of Eddie Pope's two-year stint with the MetroStars. The team might not be opposed to moving the high-priced defender (who counted the maximum $285,000 against the team's salary budget in 2004), especially considering the fact he is likely to miss a handful of games in 2005 because of U.S. World Cup qualifying.
Pope's quiet demeanor (too quiet for some who feel he isn't a vocal enough leader) and large contract would make a departure less surprising now that the Metros have a veteran defender to replace him with. Moving him would be a grave mistake, however, because Agoos is two steps slower than Pope and no longer the player he was when he won Defender of the Year honors in 2001. Playing Pope and Agoos together alongside impressive rookie Jeff Parke and underrated fullback Chris Leitch, however, could give the team the defensive stability it lacked last season.
Where could Pope wind up if he is traded? A return to D.C. seems like a good fit, especially since the defending champions need to replace all-star defender and captain Ryan Nelsen, who is close to signing with English club Blackburn. The reality is that D.C. is unlikely to have an interest in taking on his contract. New England is a more likely destination. The Revolution needs to find defensive help now that Rusty Pierce is with Real Salt Lake and Carlos Llamosa is nearing 35.
Colorado would be another intriguing destination for Pope. The Rapids are shopping Pablo Mastroeni and Pope could help anchor a back-line that was saved by Joe Cannon's heroics on too many occasions. The potential hiring of Curt Onalfo, Pope's former teammate with D.C. United, also could help facilitate his move to Denver.
Pope's departure from the MetroStars is far from automatic, unless the team could secure a player like Mastroeni in return. Keeping Pope and Agoos would tie up a considerable portion of the team's budget on two defenders, but if the Metros can get Agoos to play for a reduced rate (in the $120-$150,000 range), and if he can avoid the injury bug that might come with turning 37 early in 2005, the Metros could have the makings of a championship defense.
Rapids search continues
The Colorado Rapids coaching search has whittled the field down to a seven-man group that offers little in head coaching experience but decent credentials nonetheless. Brian Bliss, Fernando Clavijo, Dennis Hamlet, Curt Onalfo, Juan Carlos Osorio, Sigi Schmid and Tom Soehn are the finalists with Schmid, Soehn and Osorio seen as favorites.
Going by coaching experience, Schmid deserves the job the most. He is the only one with successful head coaching credentials, having led Los Angeles to the 2002 MLS Cup title. He had the Galaxy in first place this summer before being unceremoniously dumped by the Galaxy in favor of Steve Sampson. The Rapids may feel less pressure to hire a proven head coach based on the success of recent coaching novices Peter Nowak and Frank Yallop, who both won MLS Cup titles in their first years as head coaches. It should be noted, however, that Yallop and Nowak had more to work with than the new Rapids coach will.
Bliss, Hamlet and Soehn have the benefits of being highly-regarded MLS assistants, with Soehn being the leader of that group. Soehn played an integral role in helping Dave Sarachan and Nowak reach MLS Cup finals in their first seasons as head coaches. Onalfo has served as an assistant under Bruce Arena, a position that seems to guarantee an MLS head job these days, but a closer look reveals a resume with the least coaching experience on the Rapids list of candidates.
Clavijo failed miserably as head coach for New England and the Haitian national team. He is still well-liked and has a strong friendship with former U.S. national teammate and Colorado Rapids ambassador Marcelo Balboa. Osorio, a Metros assistant in 2000 and 2001 before joining current club Manchester City, doesn't have the strong MLS ties his counterparts do, but he also happens to be the only MLS assistant to enjoy a successful coaching career in Europe. Players from Peter Schmeichel to Claudio Reyna have sung Osorio's praises and MLS officials have taken note. He finished a close second to Nowak for the D.C. job before last season and was in line to replace Zambrano as MetroStars head coach before Bob Bradley decided to leave Chicago before the 2003 season.
Who will get the position? There is no clear-cut favorite. Schmid seems like the easy pick but Osorio and Soehn also would be smart choices when the team makes its decision, which is expected to come by next week.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com