As part of a new weekly series on MLSsoccer.com, senior writer Jeff Bradley spends 10 minutes with some of the biggest names in North American soccer to talk about how they’ve made their mark on the game through the years.
His subject this week, former MLS attacker Clint Mathis, who was one of the league’s first iconic American players, known for highlight-reel goals and a free-spirited personality. Mathis also had some great moments for Bruce Arena’s national team from 2000-02, including playing a major role in the USA’s 2-0 victory over Mexico in 2001.
BRADLEY: Well, it’s US vs. Mexico again in Columbus, and men of a certain age remember how that all started, with you guys back on that cold night in 2001. What are your memories of that night and that game, which the US won 2-0?
MATHIS: It was one of those games you could say was a break-out game for us [video above]. Not only for me, but also for a guy like Josh Wolff. Unfortunately, we got in because of injuries to Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna. But it was one of those things, we knew we had to step up.
BRADLEY: How about the crowd that night in Columbus?
MATHIS: It was a turning point for the US — the start of an era where we got the best of Mexico. It was freezing cold, but the atmosphere was great. And to actually play a game against Mexico in the States and not feel like we were the away team was really nice.
BRADLEY: I remember the Mexicans didn’t come out to warm up, electing to stay in the locker room. When they didn’t come on the field, what were you and the US thinking?
MATHIS: They’re not used to the cold. When they didn’t come out for a normal warm-up, we just knew they weren’t prepared to play in that kind of weather. That worked to our advantage.
US striker Josh Wolff scored a goal and added an assist in the team's 2-0 win over Mexico in 2001 after coming on for injured star Brian McBride.
BRADLEY: It was the Georgia Boys who provided the spark, you and Wolff, right?
MATHIS: Josh really stepped up in that game. With Brian hurt, we needed him. He changed the game, scoring a goal and assisting on one by Earnie Stewart. I actually keep seeing that pass coming to me, but Earnie kept running through and finished it off.
BRADLEY: Was it a statement game for MLS players?
MATHIS: I’m going to speak for myself and Josh. We weren’t the young guys, like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. And we weren’t the old guys, like Cobi Jones, Claudio and Earnie. We were the guys in the gap, and we needed to provide a bond. We were this new wave of guys, just coming in, trying to prove we could play in MLS and improve the national team.
That team that Bruce Arena had turned out to be a great mix of older guys playing in Europe and younger guys playing in MLS. I think we put a stamp on MLS, showing there were good players in the league. Good enough to perform on the world stage.
BRADLEY: What are your thoughts going into tonight’s game?
MATHIS: There needs to more urgency tonight than there was in Costa Rica. But when you give up two goals in the first 10 minutes, it’s hard to give too much deep analysis of what happened after that. That’s a tough atmosphere in Costa Rica, so it will be good for the guys to get back home in front of the US fans. I think the guys will bounce back.
BRADLEY: What do you expect from Mexico?
MATHIS: It’s going to be an interesting game because of the situation that Mexico is in. They need a win. They’ve got a new coach. Mexico is going to come out to play. I think the US may have to weather a storm, but I also think they should press and get that first goal. If that happens then Mexico is going to have to open up a lot because they need three points.
Mathis with the US national team during the 2002 World Cup. He says fans still ask when he'll bring back his signature mohawk, but he has to grow his hair back first.
BRADLEY: How should the US approach the game? Go for the win?
MATHIS: I’ll say it again. Mexico needs three points and that will change the game from what you normally see in the past. Their backs are up against the wall and I think that sets up well for the US, because they counter so well. The US can exploit Mexico when they open up.
BRADLEY: The US is dealing with some suspensions and injuries. Par for the course during qualifying, right? You know there are going to be games when you need depth, right?
MATHIS: Especially the yellow cards. When it only takes two cards for a suspension, you know you’re going to be missing some guys along the way. But the US has a deep bench. Jurgen Klinsmann has done a good job of rotating players and getting them experience. That will help them in a situation like this.
BRADLEY: Catch us up on what you’re doing these days.
MATHIS: I run camps and clinics for the Galaxy and I do studio work on the Galaxy’s broadcasts on Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
BRADLEY: You’re one of many ex-MLS players on the Galaxy staff, aren’t you?
MATHIS: On our academy side, you have Pete Vagenas as our director. Ante Razov and Michael Muñoz are coaching. Greg Vanney is here helping as club director. To have so many guys who’ve played at a high level helping out is great for the club. And it’s great to be able to give back to the game. Chris Klein has done a great job keeping great players in the game.
BRADLEY: Do the kids know who you are? Are you recognized on the street?
MATHIS: Every once in a while I’m recognized. I don’t have the hair I used to have. I’ve been asked when I’m bringing the mohawk back and I say, “Whenever I get some hair back.”