Clint Mathis, Bobby Convey and Eddie Lewis all have played in the World Cup and lived the ups and downs of European soccer. For different reasons, they have returned home to settle down. They are discovering new roles on their MLS teams.
Playing a different game
Nearly seven years ago, Clint Mathis sent a searing strike into the South Korean net during the most successful U.S. World Cup.
He trapped a throw-in from John O'Brien, touched the ball past a defender, and hammered home a blast from well outside the box that yielded a 1-1 tie with host South Korea, and eventually, cemented a spot in the round of 16.
The goal seemingly typified the unerring trajectory of his career. He had the swagger, the skill, the Mohawk, and the allure of perennial German powerhouse Bayern Munich bidding for his services. At age 25, fame and fortune looked to be a sitter, but alas, he couldn't hit the target.
Bayern had bid slightly more than $1 million for him, not the $5 million widely reported, and MLS turned it down. He would eventually go to Germany but to a lesser club and not much success.
After joining Hannover in January 2004, he scored four goals in 16 matches for Coach Ralf Rangnick. Yet when the club replaced Rangnick with Ewald Lienen, his playing time nearly evaporated. He played just four games of the 2004-05 season prior to the winter break, scored one goal, and raised enough fuss to get out of his contract.
"It might not have been the best decision at that time," he says of leaving Germany, where his fondness of nightlife and initial success - four goals in the first five games - fed the voracious sporting and tabloid media. When his luck changed, so did the coverage. "But it is what it is. I just wanted to continue playing soccer and enjoy playing soccer."
Former RSL coach John Ellinger offered him his initial opportunity to return in 2005, but it quickly turned sour for the player, the coach, and the team. A year with the Rapids and a more productive stay in New York followed. Cut loose from MLS once again in January 2008, he headed back to Europe; there was an offer from Turkey, but he chose to play for Ergotelis, a small club on the Greek island of Crete.
The rabid fervor of Greek league games often boils over into violence as giants Panathinaikos, AEK and Olympiakos usually predominate. "I saw some of that in Germany, because the fans are really crazy in Germany," he says. "I saw a quite a few fights and riots, I guess. It's a little bit different in that regard, but I never felt threatened to where I was worried about my safety. But it was kind of interesting to see the security guards with their helmets bringing out their riot shields."
When the season was over, with his wife Tracey coming due to give birth to their first child, he began discussions with MLS. He envisioned a return to one of his former MLS teams. Correct scenario, but wrong team.
"I thought we were going to work things out with the Galaxy and I guess things just got prolonged with the situation regarding Ruud Gullit," he says of a possible move to Los Angeles, not far from his wife's hometown and where he began his pro career in 1998. Instead, Jason Kreis, who had played for Ellinger and replaced him as head coach early in the 2007 season, got in touch.
"Jason made a call to see if he could get my rights, and the Galaxy said, 'yeah.' That was pretty much the situation." RSL traded a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2010. It didn't need to offer much; nobody else was interested.
He joined Kreis in Salt Lake City in time to play 11 matches. He failed to notch a goal or an assist, yet not coincidentally, RSL surged strongly down the stretch and got into the playoffs with a last-minute goal in Colorado. Another pair of dramatic games eliminated Chivas USA, 3-2, on aggregate before the dream ride ended against, ironically, the Red Bulls, Mathis' previous MLS club.
"Maybe when I was younger not scoring a goal or getting an assist would have really bothered me, because usually that was what I was expected to do," he says. "I was the guy who had to score goals.
"But I'm playing a different game here. I got myself fit and I've dropped into midfield, where I can do a lot of things to help the team. I've known Jason for a long time, he's a good friend of mine, but we don't let that affect how we do our jobs. He's the coach, I'm the player, and what he says, that's it."
Written off in England
No national team player has come back to MLS at such a young age as Bobby Convey, but then again, he signed as the league's youngest player - 16 - in 2000 and left the league four years later to play in England for Reading.
The Royals earned promotion to the Premier League in the spring of 2006, propelled in part by Convey's driving runs out of midfield and seven goals. At the 2006 World Cup, as the Americans crashed out with just one point from three games, he suffered a knee injury, an ailment that he would aggravate upon his return to Reading, and mar his career for the next two years.
"It was a bit of a difficult situation in England with my knee, it was misdiagnosed," he says of surgeries and follow-up procedures to repair ligament damage and clear out debris. "That happens in England, so it was difficult. It's very difficult when people write you off, and say, 'You're injured, you're injured,' when you know you're not.
"I just get on with it. I came home and got the surgery that I needed and talked them into letting me go now, so it took a while."
Quakes coach Frank Yallop forecast Convey as a central midfielder rather than on the left as he's normally played. A shaky start prompted a move to left back, from whence he raced upfield past two defenders to smash his shot home in a wild 3-3 tie with Chicago. He moved to forward at halftime, and finished the game in midfield.
"Playing three positions in one game, it looks good in the stats, I guess, but it's not fun to do that," he says. "It just kind of happened that way. But I want to do well. What I did today is what I want to do every game."
He also wants a shot with the national team but hints that regular playing time and good performances might not impress the current coach, Bob Bradley. He earned 42 caps from predecessor Bruce Arena, and three under Bradley in 2007.
The coach chooses who he wants to choose," says Convey, mindful the U.S. is loaded with midfielders. "It is what is it. I've talked with him a couple of times. Obviously I wasn't in the plans.
"There's a reason behind that. It's not just playing."
Back in L.A.
Returning to MLS went smoothly for Eddie Lewis, his wife, and three children, at least off the field.
Though his previous league stint had been spent entirely in San Jose, he'd grown up in Cerritos - not far from Disneyland - and attended UCLA. Surrounded again by family members and most of their close friends, Eddie and Marisol Lewis quickly regained their Southern California personas. He'd rarely been able to enjoy his hobbies of surfing, mountain biking and skiing while raising a family and playing with four teams - Fulham, Leeds, Preston and Derby - in the often harsh climate of England. One of the things he missed was just being outside in a T-shirt, rather than a jacket and scarf.
"You do adapt to the culture and we found in England we lived a much simpler life in many ways," he says. "The two biggest factors, at least for us in England, were weather and family. We have three children now so it's nice to have friends and family around, and certainly in Southern California you're not limited in your ability to enjoy things outside and not feel you're going to be locked up for days at a time."
The third game of 2009 season matched the Galaxy with Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center.
"It's a big game for us and I haven't been a part of these local rivalry games here so it's exciting," he said of a 0-0 tie that featured nine yellow cards, three ejections, and 31 fouls. "I've gone through some pretty heated derbies or rivalries, and they're amazing. They're always slightly more special for whatever reason and no matter where the teams are. The games are already pretty intense as it is. I remember one Preston-Burnley game, honestly, it felt like I'm not even sure if the ball ever touched the ground. Everybody was slamming into somebody or smashing the ball somewhere. The fans ended up riling up the players so much it took a while until they started to get a little tired and the game normalized a bit, and that took maybe 20 minutes."
Lewis knows most games aren't like that in MLS, but he does sense that teams have built up friction and bad blood during the eight years he was gone. Chivas USA-Galaxy, Houston-Dallas, New England-Chicago, D.C. United-New York, San Jose-Los Angeles all have an edge. Such is the norm in England, not just in derby matches, but for some teams, just about every time it steps on the field. There's a lot of history - the Football League was formed in 1888 - and acrimony.
"In many ways, at some of the clubs - Leeds for instance - they seem to have had an issue with just about every club," says Lewis of the League champion in 1972 and European Cup (now Champions League) runner-up in 1975 that began play 89 years ago. "It seemed like no matter who we played, they were referring to some sort of historical incident that made this game a big game every year. There's enough that goes on with these teams year after year to give fans enough reason not to like the other team."
The presence of Landon Donovan and David Beckham gives fans on other MLS cities plenty of reason not to like the Galaxy, whose stumbles and bumbles the past few seasons have brought joy to the hearts of many. Lewis has been playing left back rather than his normal left mid spot. When defender Todd Dunivant, another offseason signing, gets healthy, Lewis could return to midfield, from where his launching of left-footed dead balls and crosses once prompted an English journalist to dub him "The American Beckham."
That reference always embarrassed him, and since soon he could be playing with the real thing, he has set his sights on grounding his teammates however and whenever possible.
"It's probably one of the biggest factors I realized playing in England, the culture of the team is established very quickly, and it always starts from the top, with the most experienced guys," says Lewis, who will be 35 in May, the same age as the most recent signing, defender Gregg Berhalter. "Everybody else tends to just get in line. If the veterans set a good standard and a high standard everything else just falls into place. At the very least as a veteran I have to set that example for the younger players because at this level there's no time to be wasted."
(This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)