USA Greatest World Cup Moments, No. 8: Clint Mathis proves why he's here
During a particularly steamy and sleepy preseason workout roughly three months ago, an opportunistic member of the Chicago Fire’s digital staff turned a video camera on new assistant coach Clint Mathis.
Now 37 years old and four years removed from his playing days, Mathis scorched a few one-time volleys well over the goal and surprisingly buried a few others in the corner, proving what we knew about Mathis during his prime is still very true today:
With Cletus, you just never know what you’re going to get.
Take the buildup to the 2002 World Cup, when Mathis adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated’s World Cup preview (right), described in the pages both as a relentless party boy and “a gifted scorer unafraid to impose his will on the game.” Not words lightly taken by an American soccer community starved for World Cup success following the US team’s debacle in France in 1998 and desperate for a Yank to finally play on par with the world’s best strikers.
“He has so much fun playing, he lifts the whole team,” Eric Wynalda said at the time. “I love his spirit, talking trash on the field and scoring, then dancing that night with some strange girl in the middle of the street. If he stays healthy, he'll break my [USMNT] scoring record, I'm sure of it.”
On the field that summer, however, there were concerns. Mathis had undergone surgery on a torn ACL in his right knee in the summer of 2001 and had only returned to action three months before the World Cup, leaving his fitness in doubt when it came to a competition with the likes of veteran Brian McBride and a 20-year-old hotshot named Landon Donovan.
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Still, Bruce Arena couldn’t really put a team on the field without Mathis, right? The southern-fried soccer star from Georgia who had shaved his coover-boy haircut into a Mohawk before the tournament and described himself as a “d---“ on the field because he just couldn’t help himself?
As it turned out, Mathis did not play in the team’s now-legendary 3-2 win over Portugal to open the World Cup – there has to be more on that to come on this countdown, right? – but Arena gave him the starting nod for the team’s second group-stage game against the hosting South Koreans in Daegu.
With a curious US audience watching the man with the Mohawk from a world away, Mathis seized his moment.
When midfielder John O’Brien stepped into open space near midfield and poured closer to Korea’s final third in the 24th minute, Mathis made his run between two defenders near the top of the box. O’Brien weighted a pitch-perfect through ball over the top and to the right foot of Mathis, who deadened it and fired a left-footed half volley into the back of the net.
"I remember everything about that goal,” Mathis told ESPN.com in 2010. “The ball coming in, me taking my touch, knowing that a defender was going to be coming on me pretty soon because I was able to get in that gap, so I wanted to be able to hit it first time. And right when I hit it, I looked up and saw it was going past the ‘keeper and it was just an amazing feeling.
"You could hear the few fans we had in the opposite end, in the corner, because the crowd was totally silent,” he added. “All you could hear was just the few American fans screaming.”
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While Mathis’ goal did not hold up as the winner — Korea rallied for a 1-1 draw and eventually won the group — it helped the US edge Portugal for second place in the group, and the team eventually made it to the quarterfinals. Mathis never really made another splash for the US in that tournament or beyond (he captained the team for several games in 2003 and appeared in that year's Confederations Cup) and retired from international competition in 2005.
His goal lives on among the Mathis devotees, however, and in the annals of American soccer broadcasting. Before Ian Darke’s “Goal, goal, USA!” of the 2010 World Cup, there was one of his ESPN predecessors (and longtime hockey broadcaster) Jack Edwards and his “That’s why he’s here!” call of the Mathis goal, which some old-school fans still use as their ringtone. Admit it.
"That's one of the best moments of my life, 100 percent,” Mathis said in 2010. “It's something I'll be able to tell my children as they get older, and they'll tell their children. That's something I'll never forget."