Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Deja Vu all over again

Justin Mapp isn't the only player I've compared to Clint Mathis before. The other one was Clint Dempsey, who has since, of course, gone on to debut with Fulham this week. Thing is, while Dempsey is undoubtedly creative, he's also more driven, in my opinion, than either Mapp or Mathis. He's super-competitive and incredibly fit, while Mapp and Mathis, well, at times have been less so.

Anyway - here's the article I wrote then (2005) - it's no longer on the web. "Out of print", one might say.

A Tale of Two Clints

It wasn't so long ago that soccer fans could mention Clint, and most everybody would know that Clint Mathis - he of the Mohawk, the southern drawl and the rebel persona, was the topic of discussion. Then versatile Clint Dempsey began to make his mark in the world of U.S. soccer - and now, if a young player mentions that Clint is his idol, further clarification may be needed.

Both players are back in MLS after stints abroad. MLS Rookie of the Year Dempsey's was shorter, as he had a trial with Feyenoord, where he was able to impress, but not secure a contract.

Mathis, on the other hand, had a bright beginning with Hannover 96 in Germany turn sour after a coaching change thwarted his efforts at starting time.

Now he finds himself one of the foundation players of MLS expansion Real Salt Lake.

"Yeah, it's great. I never thought I'd be back here after only being gone a year. But, I made a promise a while back to play for John [Ellinger] and try to do what I could to get back if he ever got a job. Fortunately, he was able to get the job in Salt Lake."

At the national team camp, during scrimmages or on the sidelines, the call of "Clint!" will sometimes receive a double-take from both Mathis, who now keeps his sandy blonde hair closely cropped, and Dempsey, whose dark locks recall the free-flowing style of Argentine players.

However, only one Clint saw game action during the last USMNT team game, and it wasn't the one with a World Cup goal to his credit.

Instead, it was Dempsey feeling slightly jittery when entering the field of play at Queen's Park Oval for a match against Trinidad and Tobago.

"I was playing in front of the biggest crowd I've ever played in front of. You're trying to catch the tempo of the game, so you don't know what to expect when you're going in."

"As soon as you get your first touch that (jitters) will go away, so that's the most important thing, just trying to get that first touch out of the way."

Dempsey was genuinely surprised to be named to the gameday squad. He considers carefully before answering the question of what Bruce Arena might have seen in him.

"I just think I have a little bit of versatility, so I'm able to play different positions, which allows me to make it on a roster because I'm not just stuck in one spot."

Mathis has shown versatility himself, playing as both a forward and midfielder for the USMNT and has often been the sparkplug for a squad that was known more for its workmanlike style than its flair and passion.

However, a spark can soon become a wildfire - and Mathis' temper had a reputation in his older MLS days.

Perhaps older and wiser now, he seems to be saying all the right things.

"For me, I'm just coming out here and I'll give a hundred percent," Mathis says. "If that's good enough to be able to help the team through qualifying and get us to the next World Cup, that's fine."

Mathis and Dempsey both are open to considering playing abroad as a future option, though it would seem that the window of opportunity might be closing for Mathis.

Never one for regrets or looking back to the past, Mathis doesn't dwell on what might have been in Europe, instead seizing on the chance he now has.

"I didn't know if I was going to get this opportunity ever again," Mathis states.

"A lot of people think that I've come back because of the sourness that happened." he shakes his head emphatically. "No. I made that decision. I could've gone to another Bundesliga club, or a club in Spain, no problem. But I'd already made my decision to play for John and I stuck with it."

What Mathis values most in a coach are the qualities he observes Ellinger has.

"He's a straightforward guy, he knows the game really well, and he relates to the players really well. It's a gift that was given to him, just like a talent that a player has. I've never heard a bad thing about John from any player, any staff member, anything."

Though his own European experience was limited to a trial, Dempsey hopes that it will lead to more.

"[I'm looking for] the best situation possible, depending on the environment and the team and how bad they want me and where I'm going to get playing time."

He did pick up some valuable lessons from his time at the Dutch powerhouse.

Dempsey comments, "Practice is like game pace. It was very intense. Training with Fyenrood, you're surrounded by good players. You're put in an environment where you can only get better and that's what you want to be in."

Mathis takes away his own memories of his Bundesliga days.

"You look at the practices - day in, day out, it's about getting on the field and giving it a hundred percent each and every day. Hopefully, I can bring that experience and show how important it is to work hard, each and every day, to know how much pressure there can be on each and every game- how much three points is when it comes down to the end of the season and to relay that to the guys who haven't gotten to experience that."

He may also bring that mentoring role to younger national team members, such as Dempsey.

If Mathis is ready to teach, the young defender/midfielder/forward looks to improve by learning from his new experiences,such as his national team training. He has already prioritized the most important elements of the lessons there.

"Take care of your body. Anytime you can rest, rest as much as you can. Eat right, so you can come out every day and play as best as you possibly play. Another thing I've learned is just speed of play. It's a lot quicker, so you have to be mentally focused and ready for training."

While Dempsey's concern for his health makes him seem both mature and prudent, it contrasts against the old reputation of the more freewheeling Mathis.

Yet in spite of training and dietary habits that were described by former coaches as desultory, it was during this time that Mathis was able to lay claim to a history of impressive achievements for the USMNT.

He concedes, however, that now the national team is very competitive and appears philosophical about whether he makes the starting roster.

"It's fine with me. I've experienced the World Cup and the qualification. I'm just here to help the team in any way I can. If I come out here and give a hundred percent and Bruce decides that's going to help the team, so be it. If not, that's fine, too."

"I'm at that point in my career where I'm not going to worry about the little things," Mathis says, smiling.

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