With his thick drawl and backward-turned South Carolina COCKS hat, 23-year-old Clint Mathis looks and sounds as if he has been plucked straight from a kudzu-shaded frat-house porch in the Deep South. Time was, if a Georgian played for the U.S. soccer team, you would have thought he was a naturalized American from Tbilisi, but with Mathis and Olympic standout Josh Wolff, 23, the U.S. has two up-and-coming Peach State products (both former Gamecocks) who may be fixtures in the Yanks' lineup when the final round of World Cup qualifying begins in February. "Who'd have thought that?" Matins said last week after his goal and assist helped seal a 4-0 win at Barbados that clinched a spot for the U.S. in the regional finals. "Guess that shows we might be from redneck towns [ Mathis is from Conyers, Wolff from Stone Mountain], but we're still able to make it in this sport."
Southern-fried strikers won't be the only novelty next year when the U.S. heads to the Really Deep South ( Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and either Costa Rica or Guatemala) during the 10-match tournament to determine the region's three representatives for World Cup 2002. As a Bajan steel drum band played Bob Marley's Jammin' at the U.S. team's seaside hotel after its victory, coach Bruce Arena looked ahead to a campaign that, in light of the team's winless fiasco in World Cup '98, might better be set to the tune of Redemption Song. Here's what to expect in 2001:
?The new face of U.S. soccer won't shave every day. According to Arena, Mathis was the second-best finisher in the Barbados training camp, right behind 18-year-old Landon Donovan, who had a goal and an assist in his national-team debut against Mexico in a friendly last month. ( Wolff would have been in camp too, but he was getting married.) "Our younger players don't complicate things, and they really think they can play," Arena says. "Now they just need to get on the field."
Donovan, the MVP of last year's under-17 World Cup, has struggled to do just that in Germany, where his club, Bayer Leverkusen, has relegated him to the reserve squad. Leverkusen could lend Donovan to MLS next spring, a move both Arena and the precocious sniper would welcome. But MLS refuses to work a deal, saying it doesn't want to become a developmental league for European teams. The sooner Donovan gets regular playing time for a club, the sooner he'll appear in the U.S. starting lineup.
?Some names familiar to U.S. soccer fans are going to ride the pine...or worse. If Arena is going to give his youngsters a chance—both Mathis and midfielder Chris Klein, 24, got their first World Cup qualifying starts against Barbados—he'll have to sacrifice a few veterans. "We could have musical chairs sometimes," Arena says, "but you want to have some consistency."
Who's safe? Who isn't? Arena says only two players, midfielders Claudio Reyna and Chris Armas, are locks for his starting XL Beyond that, he lists as "probables" forward Brian McBride, midfielder Earnie Stewart, defenders Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope and goalkeeper Kasey Keller. In other words, regulars such as forward Joe-Max Moore and midfielders Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis will be on the bubble for the next round.
?MLS will become more important than ever to the national team. The fortunes of Europe-based U.S. players are at their lowest point in years—Reyna is the only U.S. regular starting for his overseas club ( Glasgow Rangers)—while MLS is developing creative talents such as Mathis, Wolff and 17-year-old Bobby Convey. When me U.S. trains for seven weeks in January and February, Euro-Yanks will be with their clubs, and the camp will be stocked entirely with MLS players. "If they perform, they may be the ones who play in the first [qualifying] game," Arena says.
One guy who won't be on the sideline in late February against Mexico is Arena, who must serve the final installment of a three-game suspension for excessively disputing a referee's call in the July qualifier at Costa Rica. "If anyone walks out of this experience knowing he has to get better, it's me," Arena says. What else did he learn from the U.S.'s harder-than-expected semifinal round, in which qualification rested on the final match? "It will come down to the last one again, I can tell you that right now," Arena said in Barbados. Then he took a celebratory drag on a Caribbean lager, knowing that it will soon be replaced by another drink known to national team coaches (and fans) around the world.
Milk of magnesia, anyone?