Red Bulls gamble on Mathis rediscovering form
Just last week, Clint Mathis packed his bags again. Traded by the Rapids to the Red Bulls for draft picks and onto his fourth team in as many years, at least Mathis can say that this time it was (somewhat) voluntary. Although he became expendable in Colorado, New York's dearth of attackers makes this move an ideal fit.
For the 30-year-old Mathis, this could be his last chance to show he's not washed up, a claim he dismisses with his typical Georgian charm as "b-------".
For the Red Bulls, it was the inability to secure a quality international striker to partner 17-year-old star Josmer Altidore that opened the door for the last-moment trade for Mathis.
With Red Bull, Mathis rejoins the organization where he made his name in the early 2000s, scoring 33 goals with the then-MetroStars. Ultimately, it is Mathis' familiarity with the players and staff that give this move the best chance to succeed.
"To be back with a group of guys like Bruce [Arena] that I've worked with for many years and also played with these other guys ... it was a situation where I was comfortable coming and when I was playing well, I was with these guys," Mathis said. "I thought that these guys would bring out the best in me."
A Red Bull spokesman confirmed that Real Salt Lake was footing a portion of Mathis' salary, but declined to say how much and clarified that Mathis is not considered a "designated player," meaning New York still has one of those positions available. (New York has also used only three of its four senior international roster spots.)
Of course, if things had worked out in Colorado, Mathis wouldn't have had to pull up stakes once again.
It became necessary for Mathis to leave Colorado after he found himself crowded out of the Rapids' new-look front line. During the offseason, coach Fernando Clavijo pushed hard to bring in a couple of highly rated attackers; Herculez Gomez from the Galaxy and Panamanian international Roberto "El Bombardero" Brown.
When it became apparent that Gomez and Brown -- who both scored in Colorado's season-opening 2-1 victory over D.C. United -- would get the majority of the time up front in '07, Mathis sat down with his coach and requested the trade.
"I talked to Fernando -- we've always had a good relationship -- and thought it might be a better situation for me to try to get out," Mathis said. "He asked me which teams I would be interested in and New York was one of them."
Early returns are inconclusive, but Mathis failed to impress in his debut in freezing temperatures Saturday in Columbus.
Arena inserted Mathis for Altidore in the 61st minute, at a point when the game was turning in the Crew's favor. However, Mathis spent most of his time tracking back to cover the midfield.
"We lost a little bit of the game and I had to drop back and help Dema [Kovalenko] and Claudio [Reyna]," Mathis said. "At that point playing in the game you just want to get out there with a point, but it felt good to get out there and run."
Even when New York managed to maintain possession, very few of Mathis' touches came in an advanced position and he didn't look dangerous running off the ball. He did, however, show his versatility by moving around the field and accepting the ball in different positions.
"I would have liked to seen a little bit more out of Clint, but we got to get him on the field at least," Arena said. "We were planning on giving him some minutes today regardless and I think he's just got to get into it a little more."
While it's difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from a 30-minute run, Arena appears committed to Mathis. For Mathis, loyalty from coaches has always been in short supply.
It was a little over two years ago when Mathis, after a tumultuous two seasons in Germany, negotiated his release to return to America to play for his old friend, Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger. Ellinger, who coached Mathis at the U-17 level and has known him since 1997, was counting on Mathis to act as the lynchpin of the offense. However, when RSL struggled to score and hobbled to a horrible debut season, it was Mathis who took the fall. In December 2005, Mathis was traded for Jeff Cunningham, who notched 16 goals and 11 assists for RSL in 2006.
"I still feel disappointed that it didn't work out," Ellinger said. "In the end, we were looking for more of a true center forward who could score goals than another attacking midfielder type.
"I've always said I hoped he'd have a tremendous career and play extremely well except when against us. It puts a strain on a friendship when it becomes with business -- it's definitely not the way it was before."
Speaking to Mathis, it's apparent that his treatment by Ellinger and the brass at Real Salt Lake still stings, even if he says he's put the past behind him. And although things ended badly in Salt Lake City, he said he doesn't regret keeping his word.
"That's the only reason I came back to this league, because of a promise to play for John Ellinger. The fact that I get released a year later -- it's no big deal," Mathis said. "I don't take it personal or anything like that, but I'm a man of my word."
If it's a lack of motivation that's been responsible for Mathis' tantalizingly inconsistent play, the idea of an angry Mathis with an axe to grind might be just the thing that pushes him to regain his old form. It should also be noted that he will be entering the final year of his contract, although he has an option for the 2008 season. The finality of that has caused him to put in more effort in the offseason than he ever has before.
"As you get older, you have to take better care of your body, even if you don't want to," Mathis said. "I think in order to accomplish my personal goals and team goals -- to win a championship -- I have to put myself in the best shape I can. That's the one thing I have left to accomplish.
"I made a promise to myself and the [Colorado] coaching staff and that's the promise I'll keep."
Indeed, the impetus for the offseason workouts was a conversation with Clavijo, when Mathis pledged to come to camp in the superb shape. He spent a great deal of time at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., working out with a personal trainer.
He also spent time with Trevor Moawad, a well-known sports psychiatrist and director of mental conditioning at the IMG Academy since 1999. Those sessions could be just as important as the physical training -- the pair spoke at great length about the pressures of being a professional athlete. For a player like Mathis, who receives mostly negative press, learning to cope with the constant criticism and understanding the motivations of the different parties involved may prove to be just as important as any physical work.
An offseason marriage could also profit Mathis, as he jokes that he'll be at home every night from now on.
It's hard to believe that Mathis is 30 years old. For so many American soccer fans, the name Clint Mathis conjures up the image of the brash, Mohawked Cletus who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the 2002 World Cup.
As the MLS season gets into full swing, fans will wonder if this is finally the year for Mathis. It's easy to understand why so many want to see him on his game -- the allure of vintage Mathis is undeniable, and he obliges us just often enough with flashes of brilliance, like his goal against FC Dallas to force a shootout in last year's conference semifinals.
It's difficult to fit in with a new team after a mere three days of practice, but Mathis' familiarity with club and coach should mitigate the inevitable learning curve. Mathis desperately wants to reward Arena for taking a chance on him -- before things go sour and Clint has to pack his bags for what could be a long, involuntary vacation.
"I just want to get out there and be excited and happy to play again, because there's been times where I've almost decided to retire and quit but I think that would be a waste," Mathis said. "I'm just tired of hearing all the stuff -- I think that's crap. I always said I would quit playing soccer when I was no longer happy and I was almost to that point.
"I knew I would have to make a decision to quit and miss it or put myself in a position where I would be happy."
Andrew Winner is a freelance writer who covers U.S. soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org