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More mature Mathis a key figure for RSL [VIDEO]
by Ridge Mahoney, April 28th, 2009 7AM

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[MLS] Jason Kreis called the strike a "wonder goal," and while it conjured up memories of a colorful, swashbuckling, occasionally troublesome goalscorer, that player no longer exists. Clint Mathis hammered a left-footed volley off a corner kick past New England keeper Brad Knighton during a record-setting 6-0 romp at Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday night.

 

VIDEO of Mathis' goal vs. Revs

It was just the second of Real Salt Lake's half-dozen goals on the night, yet the first in 16 matches since Mathis signed with RSL in August 2008 after a short stint in Greece, which followed seasons in New York and Colorado after his first visit to Salt Lake City in 2005 had started his second stint in MLS after he'd flourished and then fizzled in Germany.

From his first MLS team, the Galaxy, which drafted him out of South Carolina in 1998, he went to the MetroStars, which he left at the end of the 2003 season to sign with Hannover, from whence he bounced back to MLS after a year. In 11 seasons as a pro, he's played for six teams, including two stints apiece with two of them.

"A new coach came in, which happens all over the world," says Mathis of the dismissal of ex-Hannover coach Ralf Rangnick. "He had his own players who he wanted to play, which is fine. It wasn't the best situation there."

He's encountered other rough situations - criticisms of his fitness and self-discipline on several occasions, the five-win 2005 season in Salt Lake City, problems the following year with the Rapids - in the time since, and after playing the first half of 2008 in Greece, with the delivery date for Maximus approaching, he and his wife sat down and pondered the possibilities.

"Do we want to have our child in Europe? Is this where we want to raise him?", said Mathis, 32. "And not just in Europe, but in Greece on the island of Crete, which is a little bit different. It's a lot smaller and more natural, not so built up as a city. We talked about it."

Had not Kreis intervened last summer when turmoil regarding then-head coach Ruud Gullit held up a pending move from Greek club Ergotelis to the Galaxy, he wouldn't be gazing upon the Wasatch Mountains when he gets out of bed most mornings, feeling pretty good about life despite being acquired for a fourth-round conditional draft pick in 2010.

"I am older, I have a wife, I have a child," says Mathis of being 32, Tracey, and Maximus (yes!) in that order. "I'm not that much different as a person. I think I'm a little calmer. On the field, I think I still go out there and try to do my job and get into the game, but I wouldn't think I'm as flamboyant or don't get after the referee and things in that regard. I've settled down as far as temperament."

His five-goal game against Dallas and spectacular strike into the South Korean net at the 2002 World Cup are two of the most memorable feats in American soccer history. At each stop in his career, he's been expected to carry the scoring load, often for teams that didn't supply much support. That pressure, and some impudence, led to him to receive 41 cautions and eight ejections in 226 MLS games, during which he's scored 60 goals and registered 48 assists.

"I'm at the point where that doesn't bother me, not having stats that show I'm successful," says Mathis not of his career marks, but rather the zero goals and zero assists in 11 games last year. "That was pretty much demanded of me in other places in my career to have those stats not just for me, but for the team.

"Now people see I'm bringing different things to my game and doing my job, be it defensively or, maybe not getting the assist, but doing my part. That's all anybody is asking of me. Would it be great if I was able to score goals or set up assists? Yeah. But that's not really what matters as long as we're winning."

With RSL, he's moved from forward to midfield, where he's expected to play on both sides of the ball while floating inside or pushing up into the penalty area. Against New England, in addition to his stinging volley -- driven into the near-post top corner with the outside of his left foot -- he fought through two challengers to poke a through ball that Yura Movsisyan drilled into the net.

Mathis says he will take the goals and assists as they come. His commitment is to RSL and Kreis, with whom the relationship is a delicate melding of professional and personal.

"Jason and I have been friends for a long time and that was the main issue," says Mathis. "I didn't want to get into a situation that ended our friendship or it would be awkward. We don't get to hang out as often, obviously, but we still have our friendship and we also go to work every day and treat it as a business.

"It's definitely been day and night, a big change from the first year there. Jason and everyone in the organization and [operator-investor Dave] Checketts have all been involved in making it a competing ball club. What you saw at the end of last year and this year, it's a lot different from the days when teams enjoyed playing Salt Lake because it was almost a guarantee of three points."

In appearance as well as temperament, he's a different man. Occasionally burdened with a few extra pounds in the past, he's lean and fit, and covers a good measure of ground. The Mohawk that Sports Illustrated featured on its cover in 2002 is gone, replaced by stubble around the sides and a bald spot up top.

"I just miss hair," he laughs. "It's just part of getting old, the genes. I can't help it, right?"

 



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