Monday, October 17, 2005
Ellinger waits on Mathis to rediscover form
Back on July 23, during the Major League Soccer broadcast of FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake, announcer and former Dallas Burn head coach Dave Dir had this to say after Real Salt Lake attacker Clint Mathis scored off a forty-yard free kick that beat Scott Garlick in a 3-0 Real win: That's a guy you don't want to get started.
From the standpoint of FC Dallas, yes, but for Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer getting started is what they need from a man called Cletus.
We have seen moments this year from Mathis that remind us of the soccer brilliance he possesses -- sparkling free kicks, delicate passes, and unique notions.
Take the sidefoot volley that won "Goal of the Week" honors recently against Colorado at Invesco Field. Mathis speared a long looping cross from Robert Scarlett that many other overanxious players would have drilled into the crowd. He knew it was more about contact and maybe less about power.
It was a moment of composed finishing, combining pure skill and timing that was mouth-watering.
Not so elegant is the dark side of Clint Mathis. For example, after an on-field altercation he punted the ball into the stands against Chivas USA, culminating in his ejection and leading to a three-game suspension.
So there are the good and bad sides of this talented, creative soccer player. How then can Real Salt Lake coach John Ellinger find and capitalize on the best of Mathis more consistently?
Brought in as the cornerstone for Real Salt Lake, the "Cowboy" has lost a bit of his swagger. For the sake of Real Salt Lake and MLS, Mathis needs to find his motivation and interest so he can remain on the cutting edge of brilliance that will entertain fans and win games.
A success off the field, Real Salt Lake now has to bring results and entertainment to its impressive fan base. A house cleaning is in order and, just as important, improved performance is needed from Mathis, who should be Real Salt Lake's best player.
"We've just been unfortunate," observed the soft-spoken Mathis. We haven't played as well as we wanted to, and even when we have played good, we haven't gotten the right bounces."
Maybe but lets face the reality that some of the personnel currently is just not good enough for Real Salt Lake. Surrounding Mathis with better players could could be the key to unlocking his motivation and potential again.
"It's getting frustrating because I'm the guy who scored goals in the past and I haven't scored a lot here," said Mathis who has three goals along with four assists.
"I think people base my play off that and that is not what soccer is about. I'll be the first to criticize myself on how I play. At times I thought I have played some good soccer here."
Mathis burst onto the scene in MLS with Los Angeles and was dealt to the Metrostars where he scored 33 goals in four years. During the 2002 World Cup, Mathis scored one of the most important goals in U.S. soccer history , helping to secure a 1-1 draw against host country Korea. That point would prove vital, lifting the U.S. beyond group play to a historic quarterfinal run before being ousted by Germany.
Sports Illustrated pictured Mathis on the cover, and his Mohawk hairstyle became fashion. A self-proclaimed redneck from Conyers, Georgia, Mathis has produced on the world stage.
A move to Bayern Munich in Germany fell through, but he found a niche in the Bundesliga with Hannover, where he erupted for four goals in his first five games.A coaching clash with Ewald Lienen at Hannover over playing time and tactics came to a head when Mathis was sent into a game late, scored, then delivered a negative gesture toward the coach. Showing up coaches in the German culture doesn't fly. Just ask Stefan Effenberg, who was sent home by Germany from the 1994 World Cup for gesturing to the crowd. It was time for Mathis to move on.
Despite other offers to remain overseas, Clint decided to return to MLS to honor a promise he made to Ellinger. When they first met during the World University games in 1997, Mathis promised Ellinger he would play for the coach if he got a team.
Ellinger, fairly or unfairly, will be judged on his ability to get the most out of his superstar.
Mathis's fitness will be a major focus for the coach prior to next season.
"Clint is Clint," says Ellinger. "He doesn't take the kind of physical well being care of his body that most people do at this level. It took a toll on him in the beginning. We had to go slow with Clint in some areas in the beginning. This is his family,"continued Ellinger, "probably his personal life (engaged to be married) is the best it's ever been off the field and now we just have to get him focused on why he is here and get him to be the bus driver we brought him here to be."So does he really want to be in Salt Lake City? Some have wondered, and trade rumors surfaced during the season. Mathis discounts the rumors.
"For sure, I've had the discussion through this year to maybe not be here," said Mathis.
"My choice is, I definitely want to come back here. I came here for a reason, to be here with John.
"I'm not going to jump ship because we didn't have a good year. I'm not that kind of person. I definitely want to stay here in Salt Lake. I love it here."And what about that little thing called the World Cup next summer in Germany?
"I talked with Bruce (Arena) in the last camp back in January and told him I was going to work as hard as I could to get back in there. Hopefully he brings me in during the upcoming year in January or February, into camps to show him I can still play. I'm gonna work hard in the offseason to try and get there, and just leave it up to Bruce. If he gives me that chance, I will do what it takes to try and make that squad of 22 to go back to Germany."For one, I am hopeful Mathis regains his consistency, and the edge that has made him one of the top talents in the history of MLS. He may be changing as a player since he is in the latter stages of his career, but he still has much to offer fans of both Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer.
Glenn Davis is a soccer columnist for The Houston Chronicle and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org