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May 27, 2006

On the outside, looking in

Clint Mathis isn't on any billboards these days. Magazine covers, either. He's not mulling offers from overseas giants like Bayern Munich or getting ready for his close-up with David Letterman.

Only four short years ago, it was a completely different story. Mathis was the resident "it" player for U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer, the first player from the league to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That same year, ESPN magazine placed him front and center on their cover, flanked by other rising young stars, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley.

Both of those players will be at the World Cup in Germany. Mathis didn't even make the alternate list.

It wasn't at the last World Cup that Mathis saw his stock begin to fall, though he didn't start in the team's first game. Coach Bruce Arena's comments on his star indicated fitness might be an issue.

Yet Mathis got his chance in the next match. He faced down the host country, South Korea, and struck for an audacious goal to help the U.S. team earn a crucial tie to advance to the second round.

His mohawk haircut at the tournament received nearly as much press as his sublime goal. Gregarious and personable, the Conyers, Georgia, native took the lead in the U.S. squad's run of appearances after their quarterfinal finish. When Letterman asked if any of the U.S. players (stationed on the roof of the building where the show is taped) could kick a soccer ball across Broadway and land it on the roof of another building, Mathis fearlessly nailed the trick on his first try.

Not all of Mathis' New York memories were as sweet. After the 2002 World Cup, the potential transfer deals with European teams never worked out. Mathis remained another year with the Metrostars. His tenure was a rollercoaster ride. He once scored five goals in a single game for the Metros, but his goal production dropped late in the seasons when the team was often struggling to make the playoffs. At one point, an angry Mathis headed into the stands to confront a heckler.

"I was being commended when I was scoring goals," Mathis said of that period. "When things didn't go well, they still came to me. It was kind of a teeter-totter, kind of a bipolar situation. You're up on one end, and the next day things aren't going well."

He learned some important lessons from that.

"You have to know who your friends are and the guys who are going to fight for you," explained Mathis. "Everything else doesn't mean anything."

Friendships are important to Mathis. That's why he left Germany, where he played in 2004, to rejoin MLS and play for John Ellinger in 2005. Ellinger was coaching Real Salt Lake in the team's first year of existence.

"For someone in my position, to break his contract, take a pay cut and come in from Europe, says a lot," asserted Mathis. "I don't think there's too many people that have that kind of character that some people would just leave everything to come back and play for (that person), but John is one of those guys."

Unfortunately, the friendship did not facilitate results for RSL. Mathis scored only three goals with the team and was heavily condemned for their poor record.

"Everybody looks at me like such a goalscorer, but I do play centermid," said Mathis. "I have to get up and down. [People think] 'He's not scoring, he's not playing well' and that's not always the case. If I get the chances, I try to score. That's one of my strengths, to get it on frame, and score goals, but at the same time I have different responsibilities on certain teams. When they're coming at you the whole time, you have to play a lot of defense."

Looking to revamp the team after a horrid season, Ellinger traded Mathis to the Colorado Rapids.

"John's a great person, but at the same time, he's looking out for his job," Mathis shrugged. "If he feels that I'm not doing my job, then he has to make those decisions. Do I look at him differently as a person? No. I wouldn't wish anything bad upon him. It just didn't work out. That's business."

Yet Mathis has often been criticized for taking the business of soccer less than seriously. In New York, his love of late nights, beer and cigarettes was often pointed to as detrimental to his frequent fitness issues.

Ignoring critics became a habit for Mathis.

"The one thing that I worry about most is that my teammates know that I give a hundred percent. Everywhere I go, they know that I'm passionate about the game. That's who I play for. I don't play for the critics."

At times the coaches became critics, like Ewald Lienen. Under Lienen, Mathis saw his playing time with Hannover 96 -- his Bundesliga team in 2004 -- fall drastically.

"There's a lot more to that story than people perceive," stated Mathis. "I went to practice and busted my ass every day for my teammates to make them better, even when I knew I would never dress again. I had the respect of my teammates. The coaches, you're not going to change their minds. They're stuck in their beliefs and they've been there a lot longer than I have."

The decisions of another coach, Arena, were harder to accept. Though his output in his two national team appearances in 2005 wasn't bad (one goal, one assist, one yellow card), Mathis wasn't chosen for any games after March.

It was Ellinger who opined that the disappointment affected Mathis so negatively that it diminished his ability to perform with Real Salt Lake.

This created a vicious circle for the midfielder, because Arena was basing many of his choices on the club form of players.

"[Ellinger] knew I was frustrated," admitted Mathis. "I wanted to play to the best of my ability and be called into those games. Bruce decided not to call me in -- and I wasn't playing well with Salt Lake, so he had a reason to do it."

Mathis spoke to Arena about the situation, and the coach asked him to assess his performance.

"I thought I was playing good soccer, but our team wasn't winning. Some people think a team's success reflects on a player and vice versa. It wasn't a good situation for me."

Though it was a tough pill to swallow, Mathis accepted his fate.

"I respect Bruce in every decision he makes. He's always been very successful. I wish all those guys the best. A lot of my friends are on that team. I definitely hope that they do better than we did last time."

Yet the player who was named team captain at various points after the 2002 Cup still pined at times for another chance.

"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't care that I wasn't there," Mathis admitted.

He chose to channel his frustration into his future.

"Now that the decision has been made on the alternates and the team, I have a job here. I focus a hundred percent on the Rapids and do my best to build a relationship with these guys and help them win a championship."

The mature attitude marks a change. The former wild child of the U.S. team has mellowed somewhat, a transition that some credit to the influence of his fiancé, former UCLA soccer star Tracey Winzen. The two met while Mathis was in Germany, where Winzen was also playing -- for the women's team of VfL Wolfsburg.

"She's played at a high level," said Mathis. "She's been out there. It always helps when you come home and you have that shoulder to lean on."

Another person now in Mathis' corner also understands the pressures players face. Rapids coach Fernando Clavijo might be the perfect antidote for the malaise that has fallen over Mathis' career.

"I'm not afraid to take chances," Clavijo stated about his decision to bring in Mathis.

The potential upside was too tempting to miss out on, Clavijo explained.

"He's a very good player, very talented. If I can get him to perform 75% of what he's capable, I think we have a hell of a deal."

His plan for bringing out the best in Mathis had a simple starting point.

"As a former player, I think that number one, you have to have respect for players."

Clavijo put the past outbursts of Mathis into perspective.

"Sometimes, as a professional athlete, it's easy to explode when things don't go your way. It's easy to do things that you probably would not do in any other simpler circumstance. To this day, it's a pleasure to have him with us. [He is] outstanding with the team. It's been everything that I'd hoped. No complaints whatsoever."

The creative spark that Mathis was once capable of is still all too rare in U.S. soccer. If it indeed flickers to life again with the Rapids, more than one fan keeping a wary eye on the national team's difficult road in Germany will probably wish the firebrand of the squad had kept his place.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com