How many of us remember Clint Mathis' goal against South Korea in the World Cup in 2002? Jack Edwards' call ("That's why he's here!") has become legendary; it captured the moment perfectly and also might have summed up the collective thoughts of a nation and its overall perception of Mathis.
But why did that goal and that call, for that matter, leave everybody with the impression that we are tolerating Mathis simply because he's talented? It's almost as if U.S. coach Bruce Arena turned to his bench that afternoon as if to say, "Good, he scored. Now get him out of there."
Mathis is talented. He also has a temper. He yells at referees. He taunts opposing fans, coaches and players. And at times, he makes your blood boil, even if you are a Real Salt Lake fan, and especially if you're a MetroStars fan. But I will tell you this: I might be mistaken, but in a league starving for villains and heroes, Mathis might just be the brightest star.
Let's not forget a couple of things here. There's a reason why Clint acts the way he does. He's a competitor and he loves to play this game. And when he plays, he plays with an art that very few seem to truly understand. In my opinion, he is the most underrated and misunderstood talent in MLS.
Maybe that's why he is here after a fairly short stint in Germany with Hannover 96. He has made his way back to MLS to a new team, a new coach, and a fresh start. I don't know how many Americans saw his controversial celebration, which is one of the big reasons why he's back in the United States. After coming in as a substitute, he immediately scored, and in typical Clint Mathis fashion, he pointed to an imaginary watch and, to his coach, said something along the lines of, "It's about time."
Of course, he was benched for his outburst and that's the first time I remember anyone discussing a Clint Mathis return. He was identified as a problem by his coach, as his outburst was definitely not appreciated. But to be fair about the situation, I saw that game, I saw that goal, and I'm very familiar with his outburst. And I have to say that as he made his way back to the halfway line, I was thinking the exact same thing: It's about time.
You see, I can appreciate Clint Mathis, the good and the bad (which is not really so bad). Maybe as good as Clint is, he's never had anybody, in terms of coaches, who can figure out how to get the most out of him. I'm curious to see if John Ellinger, a first-year professional coach, can be that guy.
Clint reminds me of Mickey Mantle. He loves his life, and he loves to play. And if you were to ask anybody who's had the opportunity to play with Clint, I think they would probably struggle to have anything bad to say about him, but he still leaves us always wanting more. As a player, you appreciate his talent, and you like being around a guy like him because he makes you enjoy the game. And sometimes, some of us need to be reminded that it is a game, and it's meant to be enjoyed.
The part I like about Clint is he makes the people around him better. And although some of the things he does out there don't fit the mold of how it's supposed to look, I don't think Clint should ever try to be someone that he's not. At times, he probably feels like he's trying to teach calculus to a bunch of five-year-olds. At least that's what it looks like to me. There are levels to this game, and Clint Mathis, at times, is at the very highest. The frustration that most people have comes at the times when he is not.
So yell and scream and throw your hot dogs at him, and tell your children not to be like Clint Mathis if it makes you feel better. Clint can hear you, but I guarantee he's not listening. The way I see it, you bought a ticket to see Clint Mathis play soccer, and as long as you're doing that, Clint Mathis is doing his job. Clint will be playing Saturday at 3 p.m. ET in Real Salt Lake's home opener against the Colorado Rapids on ESPN2. I didn't have to buy a ticket, but he's one of the few players for whom I would.
Oh, and by the way, we're on primetime tonight: D.C. United at Columbus Crew at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. And since it's tax day, let me remind you of some constants in the world: death, taxes and Ante Razov. After an at-times rough stint with the Chicago Fire, Razov has made his way to the Columbus Crew, and I anticipate, after he settles in to his new surroundings, it won't matter what team he is on. Ante Razov will score goals. I like that he's been teamed with Edson Buddle and Kyle Martino to form a "magic triangle." They are certainly going to be a handful for everybody this year.
Tonight, a very depleted and tired D.C. United, after a 5-0 loss to Pumas UNAM in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup in Mexico City, have made their way to Columbus to attempt to get a result in one of the hardest places to play in MLS. It truly is a matchup for the kids. I anticipate United's Freddy Adu and the Crew's Danny Szetela, two very good friends, to square off for a very good battle. And I'm sure we can find them at Denny's after the game for a Grand Slam and a malt with two straws. All kidding aside, they are very good friends, and this is a very good matchup for primetime. Prediction: Columbus wins 4-1.
Former U.S. international forward Eric Wynalda scored the first goal in MLS history, and is currently the analyst on RadioShack's Soccer Saturday on ESPN2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.