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Back on his horse

Mathis returns to form after roller-coaster year

Posted: Friday November 22, 2002 7:51 AM
Updated: Tuesday November 26, 2002 10:43 PM

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  • Sunday's 2-0 win against El Salvador marked an end and a beginning for the United States national team. The match gave the U.S. its best-ever year with a record of 12-6-2, capping a campaign highlighted by the nation's best World Cup performance in 72 years.

    It was also the first match since a 1-0 loss to Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals, and coach Bruce Arena brought in a young and MLS-based squad as he began the process of building a squad to qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

    The match was similarly significant for U.S. forward Clint Mathis, who in the course of one calendar year had already managed to score two goals in his first national team game after knee surgery, face Arena's public criticism of his work ethic, appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, score a brilliant goal at the World Cup, undergo yet another knee surgery upon returning to MLS and, finally, have his club coach publicly suggest he seek psychological help.

    On Sunday, Mathis was one of just three World Cup veterans in Arena's starting lineup, playing alongside previously uncapped MLS top scorer Taylor Twellman, with fellow World Cuppers Landon Donovan in midfield and Pablo Mastroeni in midfield.

    Mathis set up the second goal with a return pass to Sasha Victorine, himself an experiment playing Tony Sanneh's World Cup role at right back.

    Mathis' performance marked a return to form after another up-and-down year. Mathis started out 2001 in MVP-caliber form only to suffer a serious knee injury in June. He returned to the national team this March with a two-goal performance in a 4-0 thrashing of Honduras, then had an assist and a red card a week later against Ecuador.

    Going into the World Cup, Mathis hoped to impress enough to earn a transfer to a top European club.

    "My life could change drastically after two months," Mathis said before the World Cup. "You've got to take the bull by the horns."

    Mathis graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's World Cup preview edition, around the time that Arena was making headlines for criticizing Mathis' fitness (and it proved to be Donovan who would earn the cover a month later).

    "He doesn't have a great work ethic," Arena said of Mathis in SI. "It took him nearly seven months to heal from ACL surgery. Other players have done it in nine weeks. The greatest players work the hardest. He's going to have to learn that if he wants to play for a big club."

    Mathis, who has also been criticized for his hot temper, told the magazine: "The thing is, I'm two different people. Off the field I'm like my mom. We've got the same free spirit. We like hanging out, being with people. On the field I'm more like my father. I'm just so competitive, I can't help myself -- I'm a d---."

    Just before the U.S. started play in the World Cup, Mathis underwent an MRI exam on his sore left knee, but the results were negative. Arena still wasn't done offering Mathis advice publicly.

    "In the next couple of years, if Clint really wants to move forward, he has got to bend a little bit towards conforming to the way professionals on big clubs have to act," he said. "He'll get there. I think he's still fighting a little bit of the injury.

    "It's been a tough month for him, because he was physically behind the other players. Having said that, I think he's got a real good future if he can just develop some better habits as a professional."

    In the team's opening win against heavily favored Portugal, Arena didn't call on Mathis -- who nevertheless drew attention by showing up with a Mohawk haircut. The Georgia native did get the nod against host South Korea, scoring as the U.S. picked up a crucial point in a 1-1 draw. He started again in a loss to Poland before sitting out the second round win against Mexico and coming on as a substitute against Germany.

    Any lingering hopes of a near-term move to Europe ended with another knee operation shortly after Mathis' return to MLS after the World Cup, but he was back in time for his own general manager to blame him for the MetroStars' failure to make the playoffs.

    Mathis said he unintentionally stepped on the back of D.C. United's Jose Alegria -- a move that earned him a red card and led to the MetroStars' 2-1 loss in Washington on Sept. 14.

    But coach Octavio Zambrano was having none of that.

    "Clint is in denial and he needs help. Professional help," Zambrano said. "The only good thing could happen out of this is that in the offseason we need to manage this with the severity and with the compassion that it requires. It is a matter that requires professional attention."

    The MetroStars suffered a late-season collapse, and as Zambrano was replaced as head coach by the highly regarded Bob Bradley, Mathis admitted that he had lost focus after returning from the World Cup.

    Mathis now has one year left on his MLS contract, and after next season he'll be free to move to Europe without a transfer fee. He says he has regained his focus, but that negotiations to extend his MLS deal are off for now.

    The rejuvenated Mathis earned the captain's armband from Arena before Sunday's match, and praise afterwards.

    "He was rock solid," he said. "I think he was excited to get back into camp and to demonstrate that he's looking to be a player to be reckoned with both in the league and his international career. He took on a good attitude and was rewarded by being named the captain. He did a good job and was a good influence on our team."

    Mathis said he was "flattered" to be named captain.

    "It was exciting. It was important for me and my career," he said. "I hope to continue in that role and be a leader for the younger guys."

    Mathis, 25, downplayed the criticism he received this year.

    "I never really paid much attention to that," he said. "I think a lot of that was frustration and people sticking their foot in their mouths. I knew that there wasn't any problem with me, other than a little frustration after the World Cup and not having a good season.

    "I have to bite my tongue to it. I think all of that is swept under the rug, and as long as I don't let it bother me or affect my play, then it doesn't really matter what anyone says."

    With a series of friendlies with more young, MLS-based squads in the works leading up to next summer's Confederations Cup and Gold Cup, Mathis should have ample opportunity to exercise his newfound maturity -- not to mention impress European scouts.

    MLS gets in line
    Major League Soccer is changing its playoff format, expanding each team's schedule by two games and lengthening its season by a month. Starting next season, teams meeting in the first round of the playoffs will play a home-and-home series, and the team with the most total goals will advance. Unlike many world tournaments, however, road goals won't be the first tiebreaker. If the teams score the same number of goals in the two games, they would play 30 minutes of sudden-death overtime. If neither team scores in OT, the playoff would be decided by penalty kicks. The conference finals will each be one game, using the same tiebreaking system, with the higher-seeded team at home. The final will be Nov. 23 in Carson, Calif., at the new stadium of the Los Angeles Galaxy. Each team will play 30 regular-season games, an increase of two from this year. The season starts April 5, with the MLS Cup champion Galaxy at Columbus, winner of this year's U.S. Open Cup. Next year, the top four teams in each conference will make the playoffs, rather than the top eight teams in the league by points.
    Donovan decision due
    Landon Donovan expects to find out within six weeks whether he gets to stay in Major League Soccer or whether he has to go back to Germany. His contract is owned by powerhouse Bayer Leverkusen, but his tenure there was extremely unhappy, leading to his loan to MLS two seasons ago. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't concern me," said Donovan, who started for the U.S. in Sunday's 2-0 win against El Salvador. "Richard [Motzkin, his agent] has talked to [Leverkusen]. Ivan [Gazidas, deputy commissioner of MLS] has talked to them. I've told them not to tell me anything unless it's good news."
    U.S. returns to FIFA top 10
    The United States moved up one place to ninth in the world soccer rankings released by FIFA Wednesday. The top teams remained the same as in October, with World Cup winner Brazil the No. 1 nation, followed by defending European champion France, Spain, Germany, Argentina and England. Mexico drops from joint sixth to seventh.
    Keller vs. Dorrance sexual harassment suit goes to trial
    A federal judge declined to dismiss a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by two former female players against the University of North Carolina. The ruling ends a wait of more than three years since state attorneys sought dismissal of the suit in June 1999. Any trial is expected to be at least a year away. The ruling Nov. 13 by U.S. Judge Carlton Tilley Jr. means both sides can proceed in a case that could produce a look at the inner workings of the United States' top women's college soccer program. Former players Melissa Jennings and Debbie Keller filed the $12 million suit in Chicago in August 1998, but the case was moved to Greensboro.
    Project-40 squad embarks on foreign tour
    A 23-man Project-40 squad, made up almost entirely of MLS players, will depart on Friday for its annual international training tour. Competing against the reserve teams from several of the top clubs in Germany and the Netherlands over the course of a six-game schedule, the team has an average age of 21.3 years with all 10 MLS clubs represented. The two-week trip runs through Dec. 6. The team is scheduled to arrive in Germany first, where it will take on the reserve squads of Germany's Borussia Moenchengladbach and Champions League participants and defending Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund.
    FIFA finalists
    Mia Hamm of the United States, China's Sun Wen and Germany's Birgit Prinz are in the running for FIFA's Women's World Player of the Year award, the international soccer governing body said Monday. In the men's category Germany, German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, Brazil's Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane of France all have been chosen. Nominations for the award are made by the coaches of 140 men's and 70 women's national teams. FIFA only began awarding the prize for the best female player last year. Hamm took the 2001 title ahead of Sun Wen and fellow American Tiffeny Milbrett, who was the most deserving candidate.
    McDermott steps down from coaching WUSA champ
    Marcia McDermott has resigned as coach of the WUSA champion Carolina Courage. McDermott, the only female head coach in the two seasons of the WUSA, announced last Friday she would not exercise the option year of her contract. She had a record of 20-17-7. "The timing is right in my life to step away from coaching," McDermott said in a statement. The Courage completed a worst-to-first season by winning the Founders Cup in August. Courage president Jerome Ramsey said he knew McDermott would coach for only two seasons when he hired her.
    Suffering Furman streaks into tourney
    Furman is 17-2-1 and ranked eighth in the country as it prepares for Loyola of Maryland in the NCAA tournament's opening round this weekend. The team set a record with 43 consecutive Southern Conference victories, including their fourth consecutive league tournament title. And they have not let in a goal for nine games, a defensive streak that began in freshman sweeper Gray Griffin's final Furman game before dying in an automobile accident also involving other teammates. One more shutout and Furman -- dedicating its season to "the guys who can't be out here" -- would tie the NCAA mark shared by SMU (1980), Virginia (1987) and Wisconsin-Green Bay (1992). ACC champion Maryland, ranked No. 1 by Soccer America going into the tournament, will face the George Washington-American University winner in the second round.
    Sweet 16 set for NCAA women
    Defending champion Santa Clara takes on Nebraska this weekend in the NCAA women's soccer tournament, while perennial favorite North Carolina faces Tennessee. In an all-Southern California showdown in the second round last Sunday, Kendal Billingsley scored in the second overtime to give UCLA a 1-0 victory over Southern California. Billingsley scored in the 103rd minute at Drake Stadium for UCLA's ninth consecutive victory. The seventh-seeded Bruins (18-3) will play Texas A&M (19-4-1) on Saturday in the round of 16.

    More news from the U.S. national teams
  • The U.S. women's national team will open its 2003 schedule against Japan on Jan. 12 in preparation for the World Cup in China. The women will play their first full international game in Torero Stadium. The team's training base is located near San Diego in Chula Vista. The Americans then will travel to China for a late-January tournament. Japan is led by captain Homare Sawa, a midfielder for the WUSA's Atlanta Beat. Heinrichs' team has not played since winning the Women's Gold Cup earlier this month to qualify for the World Cup, which is set for the fall of 2003.

  • Iain Hume scored two goals to lead Canada past the U.S. 3-2 on Sunday and into the under-20 world championships next year. The U.S. qualified for the 2003 championships at United Arab Emirates on Friday after victories over Haiti and El Salvador. Hume scored in the 55th minute on a pass from Kevin Harmse. Chris Lemire added another goal in the 70th minute when he stole the ball deep in U.S. territory. Hume put Canada up 3-0 a minute later on a back-heel pass from Wyn Belotte. Frank Simek and Bobby Convey scored within three minutes of each other to make it 3-2, but the U.S. rally fell short.

  • U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel had a bad week at English Premier League club Blackburn Rovers. Celtic forced them out of the UEFA Cup with a 2-0 win sparked by Henrik Larsson's lobbing a goal over a trapped Friedel in the 15th minute. Joe-Max Moore's Everton then got by 1-0 on the weekend, and Friedel was heading for surgery this week. He'll miss the next two league games as U.S. national team doctor Bert Mandelbaum cleans up his left knee.
  • U.S. National Team European Weekend Update

  • U.S. captain Claudio Reyna will need four-to-six months of rehabilitation from reconstructive knee surgery. Reyna, injured last month while playing for Sunderland in England's Premier League, had a full tear of his left anterior cruciate ligament and partially torn cartilage. He was operated on Monday in Santa Monica, Calif., by Mandelbaum. In June, Reyna helped the United States reach the World Cup quarterfinals, its best showing since 1930, and became the first American selected for a World Cup all-star team.

  • Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley underwent a successful arthroscopic procedure on Thursday to remove damaged cartilage in his left knee. The team's physician, Dr. Preston Wolin, performed the surgery at St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago, and the U.S. World Cup sensation is expected to be out for 8-10 weeks. Beasley, 20, has been hampered by the injury since May, but has been able to play through it.

  • Soccer stadium is next big push
    --By Joseph Spector at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
  • wire services contributed to this report.