When Clint Mathis burst onto the scene of American soccer in 1998, he made his mark with personality, unique playmaking ability and a full-blooded Southern upbringing that all made him something of an anomaly in Major League Soccer.
Originally from the Georgia town of Conyers, less than 30 miles east of Atlanta, Mathis eventually became arguably the most celebrated of a talented crop of players from the Peach State, despite a dearth of top-level regional teams to watch up close.
Mathis can remember his days as a toddler in the late 1970s watching the NASL’s Atlanta Chiefs, but he also recalls the void for the city’s soccer fans after the team folded in 1981.
But now, with Atlanta announced as the newest MLS expansion franchise and a 2017 debut date marked on the calendar, Mathis is one of a number of MLS players hopeful another generation of Georgia hopefuls will someday take shape.
“When I was two or three years old when they had the Chiefs and being able to watch those guys was great, but once they were gone there was no one that you could really go and watch,” said Mathis, now an assistant with the Chicago Fire. “So I think it’s good, not only for the city of Atlanta, but for MLS and for the kids and the community to grow up and be able to watch professional athletes right in their backyard.”
Mathis might be the league’s most recognizable player from Georgia, but he’s certainly not the only one who’s found success in MLS. A talented young striker from nearby Stone Mountain named Josh Wolff played with Mathis at South Carolina before making a mark of his own in MLS and beyond, making the US rosters at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
Now an assistant with the Columbus Crew, Wolff said he's been aware of the buzz in Atlanta for years, but Wednesday's announcement was still something of a surreal moment.
"Honestly, from the moment I came into the league, Atlanta was always a team that was talked about," Wolff said. "So in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Yeah, it's going to happen eventually,' but you didn't know how far this league was going to grow."
Houston Dynamo midfielder and Jonesboro native Ricardo Clark was also a star in the Georgia youth ranks before eventually suiting up for the USMNT in the 2010 World Cup.
“At least when I was growing up, soccer was big among the kids,” said Clark, who played with regional club power AFC Lightning in Atlanta. “I was a part of the youth system in Georgia and most of the youth soccer going on was around Atlanta. That’s a foundation that the game can be built upon. It just goes down to marketing the team the right way and drawing interest from others.”
Chicago Fire goalkeeper and USMNT hopeful Sean Johnson (right) also calls Atlanta home, and played with the Atlanta Blackhawks of the USL Premier Development League.
“Soccer is actually pretty big in Georgia,” he said. “I grew up there for 18 years of my life and just seen soccer get bigger and bigger over the years. There are so many kids involved in youth soccer and at collegiate level as well. It’s a growing sport and it’s gotten bigger and bigger, so it’s something that will have a good base going forward and will only get bigger with the MLS franchise.”
Although born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Montreal Impact striker Jack McInerney also has strong ties to the area after his family settled in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta when he was in third grade. Like Wolff and Mathis before him, he eventually became a rising star on Georgia’s youth soccer scene before he was scooped up by US Soccer and placed in the Bradenton Academy in Florida as a teenager.
“Just having a professional soccer team [in Atlanta] will make the kids want to play even more,” McInerney said. “They’ll have someone to look up to, where maybe they’ll continue into high school and college and having the dream of playing for that team one day.”