Clint Mathis didn't see this day coming, but he's sure glad it's here.
Just a year after leaving MLS for German Bundesliga club Hannover 96, Mathis has returned to the United States to play for expansion club Real Salt Lake. Mathis's return to MLS fulfills a promise the Conyers, Georgia native made to his new coach, John Ellinger, seven years ago when Ellinger coached him at the World University Games in Italy.
"It is kind of weird. I never really pictured myself being back in MLS a year after I left, but this is something I've been looking forward to," Mathis said. "I told [Ellinger] if he ever got a job, he needed to give me a ring, and it just so happened that he got the job here.
"John's a great guy, a great coach. I have a lot of respect for him, and he's the main reason I came back here. There were other teams I could have went to throughout Europe, and I pretty much said, 'No.' I made a promise to someone, and I told him I would play for him and that's what I want to do. This is a great feeling."
Mathis departed MLS a year ago after scoring 48 goals in six seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy and MetroStars. One of the most dangerous strikers in the U.S. national team pool, Mathis lit up the Bundesliga in early 2004 under Hannover coach Ralf Rangnick. Mathis scored four times in his first five appearances with Hannover, but in March, the club dismissed Rangnick and hired Ewald Lienen.
The coaching change resulted in a change of duties for Mathis and a clash in philosophies between the player and the new coach. He only scored once more in the 2003-2004 season and saw little time under Lienen this fall, scoring just one goal. According to Mathis, the disagreements won't sour his view of his time in Europe, but staying with Hannover was not a realistic option for him.
"It was a great experience for me. I would never take it back. But in this business, it's kind of tough when a coach doesn't agree with a player," Mathis said. "They have the control to do what they want, and that was kind of the case there. One coach brought me over. Unfortunately, he got fired, and then a new coach came and it just didn't work out for me. That's just the way it is."
In Salt Lake City, Mathis sees the potential for great things. He lauded the commitment of Ellinger and RSL General Manager Steve Pastorino to build a team that can compete immediately and said he is impressed by the club's roster.
"I was shocked. As I was trying to get this process done, I was hearing we had acquired Jason at first and then D.J. Countess in goal and Andy Williams," Mathis said. "To see these guys that are coming in, I'm very excited to be able to put it all together and be able to play with these guys.
"We can't be bashful. We can't sit back and say, 'Hey we're a new team, a new franchise. We can't win this.' That's BS. You go out there to win games, and all of these players have the capability and the experience to do it."
Mathis has just under three months to prepare for his first match with RSL, which will take place on April 2 at Giants Stadium against his former team, the MetroStars. It remains to be seen what kind of reception the fans in the New York area will give Mathis. In 2003, Mathis was the target of a great deal of criticism as his scoring tailed off late in the season and the club struggled, losing in the first round of the playoffs.
Mathis found it "pretty funny" that his first professional game back in the United States will be against his former team, and added that he has nothing to prove to the fans or media that pinned the Metros' late season woes in 2003 on him.
"We all know how New York is. They're with you when they're with you, and they're not when they're not," he said. "I don't think I ever have to prove myself to anyone. As long as I go out there and give it everything and try, everything will be fine in my book."
By this point, Mathis must be used to being the center of attention. Being one of the most talented players in MLS has naturally made him a focal point in the past. Ellinger said Mathis's flair will only be a good thing in Salt Lake City.
"I respect his passion," Ellinger said. "I like personalities in soccer, and when he's playing his best, he's actually using his personality and he turns it into the talent you see on the field."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.