Mathis on verge of becoming World Cup star

Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- Clint Mathis dropped to the ground last June 5 and screamed: ''I've torn my ACL!''

Exactly one year later, the star U.S. forward figures to be on the field in the team's World Cup opener against Portugal, a leader of a revamped group trying to show a skeptical world that Americans can put the ball in the net, too.

''When you need someone to do the unexpected, to put in a ball out of nowhere, Clint is very much the one to do it,'' says Octavio Zambrano, his coach with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Mathis was 9 when he first noticed there was a World Cup. He watched England play Argentina and was stunned by Diego Maradona's daring dribbling through three players and around Peter Shilton, one of the best goalkeepers ever.

''That,'' Mathis says, ''is when I first realized how big the World Cup was around the world.''

Now he is 25 and about to play in the World Cup for the first time in South Korea -- a far different place than the streets of Conyers, Ga., where he started playing soccer when he was 3, looking up to two older brothers.

He is unpredictable, a new breed of American player with quick bursts and shots teammates wouldn't think of taking. His 40-yard through pass to Josh Wolff, his former teammate at the University of South Carolina, led to the opening goal in the victory over Mexico that started the final round of World Cup qualifying.

His curling 22-yard free kick with four minutes left in Honduras gave the Americans their first World Cup qualifying win in Central America in 12 years.

''The moment the ball changes hands, that is the moment when the other team is most vulnerable, and that is the instance where Clint Mathis is at his absolute best -- and in my opinion he's one of the best of the world,'' South Carolina coach Mark Berson says.

Mathis is also goofy, keeping teammates loose, and they nicknamed him Cleetus because of his Southern drawl. But along with his unpredictability goes a fiery personality, one that causes him to jabber with officials throughout games.

''That's just Clint,'' Berson says. ''We talk about it from time to time. He knows he has to work on that. That's the way he's kind of wired.''

In college, Mathis barbecued in just an apron and hat, trying to be The Naked Chef. Now, at his townhouse in New Jersey, he keeps regular and light beer on tap. He lists Dr. Seuss as his favorite author.

A sparkplug, he started kicking soon after conception.

''He did until the last month before he was born,'' his mother, Pat, recalls. ''It was because he was so big.''

Eight pounds, 5 1/2 ounces when he made his debut, Clint Mathis immediately was headed for a soccer career.

''As soon as he was born I said, 'Oh, my gosh, he looks like a ballplayer,''' his mom says.

He looked up to older brothers Phil and Andy, and was watching them play soccer when he started walking at 9 months.

''I used to take him to the field in his stroller to watch his brothers,'' Pat remembers. ''He just started walking. Then he was kicking paper cups, balls of paper, whatever. It's like he always played.''

He broke the glass of his mother's curio so often with soccer balls that repairmen eventually started fixing it for free.

When he was 3 1/2, playing peewee ball, Pat remembers Adrian Brooks of the North American Soccer League's Atlanta Chiefs taking notice, stopping to give the little boy a half-hour lesson. By the time Clint was 9 or 10, his mother got a letter in the mail, inviting him to try out for the Olympic Development Program.

At Heritage High School, he became Georgia player of the year. At South Carolina, Mathis scored 53 goals in 58 games over four seasons. But he also had to overcome a major injury.

On Nov. 19, 1995, playing against Coastal Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament, he tore the ACL in his left knee. At the time, his 25 goals led Division I.

''I dribbled past some guy who was tackling. I got past him, I was over him, and when I landed my knee buckled,'' Mathis recalls. ''Your whole leg goes dead. Don't get me wrong, it's terrible pain, but it only lasts a minute, a minute-and-a-half. I told coach I'd be back in. It felt a little weak. I was able to run back and forth, do shuttle runs. I iced it down.

''Then my knee had blown up to kingdom come and back.''

He nearly signed with Feyenoord of Rotterdam before joining the Los Angeles Galaxy in 1998. Less than a month into his first MLS season, Mathis made his mark.

It was April 11, 1998, and he entered as a second-half substitute for Los Angeles in a game at Giants Stadium. Mathis took a looping pass from Cobi Jones, went one-on-one with Tony Meola and calmly rolled the ball under the goalkeeper's right side.

''The way he finished that goal against an accomplished goalkeeper like Tony Meola would just tell you what this kid is made of,'' recalls Zambrano, who brought Mathis with him to New York. ''It told me at that moment that we had something special.''

Mathis blew out his other knee while trying to avoid crashing into a teammate during practice for the U.S. team's exhibition game against Ecuador.

''I knew as soon as I landed,'' Mathis said. ''People were saying, 'Don't go there. You don't know if you tore your ACL.' Brad Friedel was calling me the best doctor ever. He didn't know I had torn one previously.''

At the time, he was leading the MLS with seven goals in 10 games. He had become a popular character during the previous season, lifting his jersey to show an ''I Love NY'' T-shirt after he scored.

His rise coincides with that of U.S. coach Bruce Arena. A day after Arena was hired in October 1998, he selected Mathis for his first game, an exhibition at Australia.

Now, on the eve of the World Cup, Mathis tries not to think about the World Cup. His contract with MLS runs through 2003, and before the U.S. team opened its training camp, Mathis went to Europe to talk with Bayern Munich, and he's also spoken with Italy's Perugia. He could wind up getting sold by MLS for a record price for an American soccer player, topping the $6.8 million Sunderland paid Glasgow Rangers for Claudio Reyna in December.

''I have two satellites now,'' Pat Mathis said, referring to the dishes at her house. ''I can always get another.''

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