A man apart
Here's a bit of advice: Don't ask Real Salt Lake and U.S. national team striker Clint Mathis to keep his mouth shut. Don't ask him to hold his tongue after a referee blows a call. Don't ask him to go easy on the rookies at practice. Don't ask him to apologize for once famously showing up his coach after scoring a goal off the bench. Not that Clint would listen to you anyway, but the reality is that the 28-year-old native of Conyers, Georgia, simply isn't going to do any of those things. Clint is going to be Clint whether you like it or not-or more apropos, Cletus is going to be Cletus, as Clint is nicknamed. Basically, Cletus is a hellfire-and-brimstone Southern boy who always lets you know exactly where he stands, and if you're a fan of the magic that he can conjure up, you've got to learn to take the good with the bad. Because Clint comes with Cletus. It's a package deal: If you want Clint's talismanic skills, the kind that produced 42 goals during his initial 6-year stint in MLS, then you have to accept Cletus's unnecessary yellow cards and one-upmanship; If you want Clint's fiery competitiveness, the kind that reared up when he scored the goal against South Korea that put the U.S. into the second round of the 2002 World Cup, then you have to tolerate the occasional training-ground tongue-lashing from Cletus. If anyone is going to change Cletus, it won't be you or his teammates or his coach or the media. Clint will take care of it himself, on his own terms, in his own time. Which is why he's back in Major League Soccer, with the expansion club Real Salt Lake, after a tumultuous year at Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga. He needed a change. A new city. A new start. Unlike in New York or Los Angeles, the two cities where Clint Mathis previously played in MLS, rush hour in Salt Lake City actually rushes. The 30-mile drive from downtown Salt Lake City to Utah Valley State College, where RSL is training this week, takes only 25 minutes. It's Thursday morning, sunny, gusty, a crispy mid-April chill in the air. Snow still caps the Rocky Mountains, and rumor has it there is still a 200-inch base at Alta. In the distance, the Great Salt Lake shimmers a silvery gray in the white sunlight. I haven't seen Clint in person in a couple of years, but it only takes a second to make him out among his teammates-he's the one who doesn't look like a soccer player. Even in his training gear, Clint looks more like a traveling salesman: hunched shoulders, thinning dirty blond hair, a slight paunch, a bouncy pigeon-toed stride. He is Willy Loman in soccer shorts. But then the ball swings wide during a controlled game of keep-away. Teammate Rusty Pierce is in trouble, and he loses the ball on a bad bounce. Clint's Southern drawl rises above the shouts of Turn and Man On. "Stick with it, Rusty. Don't worry about it. It's a shitty field." Two minutes later, Pierce is in trouble again, closed down by two defenders. Suddenly, Clint flashes into view, a step ahead of his marker, perfectly placed to support Pierce. When the ball is played to him, Clint flicks it with the outside of his right foot, pirouettes around his marker, and takes off to the other side of the field, galloping by defenders with the ball glued to his foot. In the span of four seconds, he has unexpectedly and brilliantly tilted the entire balance of play. It's vintage Clint. Flashes. Flurries, like a mountain storm. He can disappear for excruciatingly long stretches of time during a game, sometimes not touching the ball for 10 minutes. And then, unexpectedly, he explodes into the moment, like he did at the World Cup. "I can read people, just in life, really. I'm pretty good at it," Clint says by way of explaining his own abilities. "So when I get on the soccer field, and I'm playing with or against someone I try to look at their tendencies. A lot of time, I get shit for not being fit or something, 'cause I'm not always buzzin' around. But that's not part of what I do. I will disappear. But the defender will think, 'Aw, Clint's not doing much,' and the next thing you know, he'll go to just look over here, and I'm 20 yards away and I'm getting the ball." Such a player requires a certain type of coach, someone who sees the big picture and understands that "buzzin' around" is not Clint's game. John Ellinger seems to be exactly that type of coach. A former U-17 national team coach who nurtured such talents as Freddy Adu and Danny Szetela, Ellinger is a mellow guy with big eyes and a casual Southern accent. He's known Mathis since '97, when he coached him at the World University Games in Italy. The two forged a unique relationship-part mentor, part friendship-during the surprising U.S. run to the semifinals, and Mathis promised Ellinger he'd come play for him if he ever got a head-coaching job. "The thing I remember most about Clint was a swashbucklin', knifin'-through-defenses kind of player," Ellinger recalls. "A lot of bite to him, and obviously a lot skill. Just had a way of takin' over games. He's just a fierce competitor. I saw that and fell in love with Clint the player. I think a lot of people try and change him. And I'm not about that. I like Clint for who he is as a person, who he is as a soccer player. I think he's a humble guy. I think he's a total team guy who will do anything to help his team win at any level." Clint Mathis-or perhaps it's Cletus?-can be vicious when a pass goes awry. But off the field, he's one of the most personable guys in the league. He likes riding motorcycles and lounging on his boat. He talks a lot and speaks quickly, while always remaining calm. When he and I meet for dinner in Park City, the Olympic ski town about a half-hour east of Salt Lake City, his voice never rises above a conversational level, even when he's at his incendiary best. Park City is the quintessential ski village-equipment rental shops, Western wear, unspectacular art galleries and après-ski bars. "It's like Dumb and Dumber, like when they go to Aspen," Clint says. "I guess I'm dumbest." He recently bought a condo nearby, where he lives with his girlfriend, Tracey Windson, who once played for the WUSA's San Diego Spirit. Park City is, in fact, where Dumb and Dumber was filmed. It's worlds away from Georgia, where Clint grew up the son of a preacherman and a friendly but tough Southern lady named Patsy. Park City is also worlds away from Hannover, Germany. "Well, the thing is," Clint explains, "I think the coach played a more defensive style of play, and I didn't really fit in to what he wanted me to do. He brought new guys in at the break. He wanted to use them. He started not using me. Then as we all know, I did my whole watch thing, my gesture. That was fine." The "watch thing" took place last fall, when Hannover was playing Schalke 04 at home. Following his transfer to Hannover in January of 2004, Mathis started and scored four goals in his first five matches. But then he hit the bench, at odds with manager Ewan Lienan, who himself was on the ropes after the team's poor start the following season. Finally, against Shalke, Mathis was inserted with 10 minutes to go in a 0-0 game. He scored 90 seconds later and in celebration gestured toward Lienan by grabbing his crotch and pointing to an imaginary wristwatch in reference to his lack of playing time. The episode quickly became legendary in the German media and U.S. soccer circles. "It was just about me playing on the field," Clint explains. "You know, I don't think he showed me enough respect or treated me like he should've treated me. I'm not asking to be treated any different, just like anybody else. But just the way he kind of treated me I kind of didn't like." Many outside observers have called this sour grapes. They say he couldn't handle the brutal realities of the Bundesliga, much the way they say Landon Donovan wilted at Bayer Leverkusen. By extrapolation, they then attack American soccer as a whole. But Clint's RSL teammate, U.S. international Eddie Pope, doesn't get it. Over his 10-year career, Pope has had plenty of chances to go overseas, and always turned them down. "People will always ask, Why come back?" Pope says. "I think it's strange, though. When we make decisions about where we play based on money, we're criticized. When we make a decision based on our own happiness, people ask, Why? I think it's better to be happy. You play better." A player like Mathis presents a particular difficulty for European prejudices. Like Donovan, he is talented enough to thrive in Europe. But, unlike Donovan, he is also willing to call out a European manager when he starts playing head games. No longer will American players go overseas and just put up with whatever crap Europe dumps on them. Clint has made it okay for Americans to demand respect. Before going to Germany, respect was never really a problem. Prior to the '02 World Cup, Clint graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was seen as the charismatic poster boy for U.S. soccer, and the mohawk he wore in South Korea grabbed headlines. Since returning, Clint is once again receiving acclaim. He is often recognized on the streets of Salt Lake City, something that never happened in New York or L.A., but that might have more to do with his mohawk resurrection for RSL's home opener. RSL owner Dave Checketts is thrilled to have a player of his caliber and marketability on his new team. And Ellinger obviously knows that Clint needs to be a starter. But this is a different Clint. After a year under the intense pressure of the Bundesliga, lessons have been learned and Cletus has been tamped down some. Mathis has matured. He believes he is still very much a part of the present U.S. soccer scene and hopes to be in the squad that goes to Germany next year. But he also thinks about the batch of players who will replace him and his peers. "I think I can really help the young guys," Clint says. "People don't realize how intense it would be just at training in Germany, day in, day out. I hope I can make our young players realize when they come out here that they have to improve themselves. They need to realize that they need to bust their rear end day in, day out. Not only to get in the lineup, but to help the team." Ellinger believes that if Clint has mellowed "a tad," it's because of his serious relationship with Windson. He has also become more religious. He prays regularly and he now has a massive cross tattooed on his back, with the image of a bleeding Jesus in the middle-right under a banner bearing "CLETUS" in Olde English type. "I think Clint is a misunderstood person," says RSL captain Jason Kreis. "He's portrayed as a wild guy and he has no problem being portrayed that way, but the truth is he is very humble and gracious. One on one, he's just a good guy." Pope, who was also Clint's teammate in New York, thinks that Clint is the same person he always has been. "He's a determined individual, a perfectionist," Pope says. "Those are good qualities. Clint is still Clint." Striker Magazine is America's Ultimate Soccer Magazine. It is published quarterly by Harris Publications.