When Clint Mathis was seven years old, his older brothers, Phil and Andy, made a rule: Young Clint could play soccer with them in their Conyers, Ga., neighborhood, but only if he used his left foot exclusively. "They didn't want me to grow up playing just right-footed," says Clint, the new It boy of American soccer. Those days yielded comical scenes, as the towheaded kid in the blue-and-white-striped Diego Maradona jersey scampered madly to use his left. "Right foot!" his brothers would say when Clint cheated, followed by, "Sit down!"
Lately those lessons have been paying off as Mathis, 24, has fast become the first MLS-bred American star, an ambipedal forward whose growing collection of highlight-reel goals has inspired adoring New York/New Jersey MetroStars supporters to worship him with religious fervor (his fan club is called the East Rutherford Mathodist Church) and to break out in rapturous song (to the tune of Guantanamera): There's only one Clint Mathis!/There's only one Clint Mathis!/Only one Clint Maaaaa-this!
As of Sunday, Mathis was leading MLS with six goals in five matches, and he's always a threat to score in bunches; last season he set a league single-game record with five goals against the Dallas Burn. In scoring a hat trick last week in a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Wizards, he used his head, his right foot and—you guessed it—his left. Beyond his heroics in MLS, Mathis has had two goals and four assists in four World Cup qualifying games while leading the Americans to a 3-0 record in the region's final 10-game tournament.
Just as important, the quality of Mathis's goals matches their quantity. Two weeks ago he embarked on a breathtaking 60-yard slalom run past three Burn defenders for one of the most electrifying strikes in U.S. soccer history. The goal, replays of which were aired worldwide (and which can be seen at mlsnet.com), evoked heady comparisons to Maradona. "I try to play on instinct," says the soft-spoken, twangy-voiced Mathis. "I just go. The moment I start thinking on the field is the moment I start messing up."
"He's got so much confidence right now," says MetroStars captain Tab Ramos. "Taking people on with the ball at your feet is the hardest thing in the game. Clint has the full package—the flair, the ability to change speeds—and I don't think any American player has ever had that at age 24."
What's more, like many other top forwards, Mathis has a sense of the dramatic, often disappearing for long stretches of games, only to swoop onto the scene like a superhero when he's most needed. During a Cup qualifier in Honduras in March, he played so poorly that coach Bruce Arena let loose a stinging philippic at half-time. "One of my worst games ever," says Mathis. "I might have made two good passes." In the dying minutes, though, he curled a world-class free kick over the Honduran wall and into the net, giving the Americans a stunning 2-1 victory.
When Mathis left the field that night, Arena could only shake his head and smile. "As a coach you pull your hair out," he says. "Clint's completed pass percentage is the lowest on the team, and he underperforms in a lot of statistical areas except the one that matters most: He's involved in the plays that make a difference. That's called genius. He has a lot of creative ideas out there, and you have to allow that to blossom."
Mathis can throw a football 60 yards, but his brothers decided the sport was too dangerous for him, so he stuck with soccer instead, developing his instincts in youth leagues and through hours and hours of kicking the ball—often in the house. (He broke the glass door in the family's curio cabinet so many times with wayward blasts that the repair man stopped charging for replacements.) Though Mathis spent time with various U.S. youth teams and played four seasons at South Carolina (three of them with current national team striker Josh Wolff), he was hardly expected to explode onto the American pro scene. As a part-time starter for two seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he never scored more than seven goals.
His big break came last season when L.A. signed Mexican star Luis Hernandez and, as a result, the then last-place MetroStars picked up Mathis in an MLS-mandated dispersal draft. With 13 goals and 13 assists for the Metros, Mathis finished second in the league's MVP voting and drew Arena's attention for international duty. In fact, when Mathis and Wolff came on as early substitutes during a World Cup qualifier against Mexico in February, Clint's mom, Pat, called her longtime pal Sandy Wolff, Josh's mom, and said in her wonderfully Southern way, "You'd "better watch now, 'cause they're fixin' to score!" Sure enough, Mathis's pinpoint pass set up Wolff for the first goal in the 2-0 victory.
As the MetroStars have embraced Mathis, he has grown equally fond of Gotham. Last year he wore under his uniform jersey an I [LOVE] NY T-shirt, which he exposed whenever he scored, and he has been a regular at Broadway musicals and the WWF theme restaurant in Times Square. "Everything has happened at the right time for me," he says.