Thursday, June 23, 2005
What's wrong with Clint?
September 6, 2003. Don't worry, it's a not a date you should remember. In reality, it was just another random Saturday night in Major League Soccer.
But for Clint Mathis, it marked the last time he scored a goal in MLS. Even without playing in the league during the 2004 season while he was in Germany with Hannover 96, the Conyers, Ga., native has now gone a total of 21 matches --his last 8 with the MetroStars, and first 13 with Real Salt Lake -- without scoring a goal.
That's almost an entire season.
It's one thing if Mathis were just another striker. For a journeyman, fine. It wouldn't be acceptable for the head coach, but there likely wouldn't be article after article in newspapers, magazines and on the internet analyzing why it is happening. Even the furor of the "King of Goals" himself, Sergio Galvan Rey, has become a stale topic.
But Mathis is not just another striker, and he's never a stale topic -- not even for a moment. This is a man who is only 28 years old -- in his prime, one would think - who is less than a year removed from scoring goals in the German Bundesliga and from starting all-important World Cup qualifying matches for the U.S. national team. This is a player who was summoned back home by longtime friend and mentor John Ellinger to light the Salt Lake soccer scene on fire, not only by scoring brilliant goals, but with the overall package that is, well, Clint.
Maybe he'd lift up his shirt and display a photo of a snowboarder when he scored his first goal. Maybe his old Mohawk would become the haircut of choice on playing fields all over Utah. And, just maybe, his scintillating play and colorful personality on and off the field would make him a true crossover star and launch him into the Robbie Bosco/Danny Ainge/Steve Young type of stratosphere in a state that is searching for sports heroes.
That hasn't happened, though. Aside from a few gritty performances at Rice-Eccles Stadium, the team hasn't played particularly well. And Mathis has yet to resemble the Clint of old. What's funny is that he's actually coming off perhaps his best performance in a RSL uniform, as he was the best player on his team during a dreadful 3-0 loss to San Jose on the road last weekend. He was laying off beautiful balls for his teammates and was very accurate on his serves. On another night, Mathis might have got two or three assists for his efforts to add to his team-leading three assists (two were game-winners), but his teammates could not finish against San Jose.
Strong performance or not, for many, it meant that Clint played yet another match without finding the back of the net. And once again, people around MLS are asking the same question over and over when it comes to Mathis:
When you watch the 2005 version of Clint Mathis, you almost wonder if the expectations surrounding him need to be changed. He is no longer the quick-cutting bulldog of a striker that used to, as one longtime MLS observer recently out it, "see a gap, go at it and explode through it without thinking."
That's the Clint that scored five goals in a game against Dallas in 2000.
That's also the Clint that softly took down a long chip from John O'Brien with his right foot and then blasted a ball with his left foot to score the lone goal for the U.S. against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. The "That's why he's here," moment.
The present-day Mathis looks more like someone who will beat you with a 20-yard through ball to an on-running striker than the one actually scoring the goal. Now and then, he'll surely find paydirt off a free kick or on a well-placed shot from the top of the 18-yard box. But if you're looking for the deceptively quick, outlaw-ish type of striker that ran some 60-yards with the ball right through the Dallas Burn defense to score one of the best goals MLS has ever seen back in April of 2001, don't hold your breath waiting.
The way he is playing these days, it seems as though Mathis is more suited to play as an attacking midfielder than as a striker. Since the knock on him is that he doesn't cover a lot of ground, which is quite valid, it's almost as if a manager needs to be creative when it comes to his positioning. A great example is how someone like RSL teammate Andy Williams has been best utilized during his MLS career. If you put Williams alone in the center of the midfield, he'll struggle. But if you put him in a triangle -- like the one he had in Chicago with Chris Armas and a player like Jesse Marsch working for him -- it allows him to pick and choose his moments and find the right angles to beat the defense without having a lot of defensive responsibility.
In Clint's case, the best situation might be for him to play in a 3-5-2 or a 4-5-1. Mathis could be used as the lone attacking midfielder with two holding midfielders winning balls behind him. Alternatively he could be employed in more of a free role in the center of the midfield, much like the one Clint Dempsey often enjoys in New England.
Hey, what else does Real Salt Lake have to lose? This is a side that just went through an MLS scoring-drought record of 557 minutes and has had 13 different lineups in 14 matches.
Whatever position Mathis lines up, Ellinger is not ready to give up on him. Sources within the club are quick to say that Mathis has been like an extension of Ellinger on the field and at training. He's been influential on some of the younger players like striker Jamie Watson. He's encouraging, yet also practices tough love, which is a change for Mathis as he never was what you would call a real vocal team leader in the past.
Friends of his say that he's much happier than he's been in a long time being in Utah, and that's he's as focused to do well for his new club, as well as to make it back to the U.S. national team.
That won't be happening soon, as Bruce Arena's squad of 23 players for the Gold Cup was released without the inclusion of Mathis. With a series of good showing between now and August, he could still be recalled for the U.S. side's next World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago on August 17.
If the recall is to happen however, Mathis will have to put an end to his scoring drought in the immediate future.
Until then, the critics will wonder if any part of the Clint of old is still lurking somewhere within the 2005 version of Clint Mathis.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.