Clint Mathis retired on Tuesday afternoon, and now the league must say goodbye to one of the great personalities in its history.
Or two of the great personalities. Mathis always seemed to be two people at once; two sides of the same coin.
One side was Clint, perhaps the most talented American striker of his generation, brash and unpredictable and capable of conjuring a goal-scoring chance out of nothing, like his now-immortalized 60-yard run for New York or his life-saving strike in the 2002 World Cup.
The other side was Cletus, the impetuous devil-may-care character who showed off his basement keg-erator, who clashed with coaches and seemed to let himself go somewhere in the middle of his career.
These two were a package deal. If you wanted the one, you had to accept the other. I, for one, loved both. Personalities, like talent, are what make the game beautiful. They are the protagonists—and, often, the antagonists—of every story worth following and writing. And for the better part of his 13-year pro career, Mathis was both protagonist and antagonist of his own story.
That story has many chapters. His first stint with the Galaxy, when he was bristling with youth and speed, resulted in a respectable haul of 15 goals in three seasons. But he was shipped out to make room for Mexican striker Luis Hernández, a circumstance that didn’t sit well with him.
And he let everyone know exactly how he felt the first chance he got. Upon scoring his first goal for the MetroStars, he lifted his jersey to reveal an “I ♥ NY” T-shirt. It is still one of the most enduring images in MLS history, part sign of affection for his new home, part sneer at those who would cross him.
In New York, of course, despite a long-term injury, he rose to the level of superstar, scoring 33 goals over three-plus seasons and becoming a mainstay for Bruce Arena’s US team.
Then came the 2002 World Cup. First, Mathis—was it Clint or Cletus?—was the cover story of Sports Illustrated’s World Cup special issue. Unlike so many other SI-cursed athletes, Mathis lived up to the hype in every way. His mohawk was a hirsute statement copied by young players across the country, and his goal against South Korea in the group stage—a clutch goal that basically led the Americans to advance to the round of 16.
After that, Mathis’ story bounces around—to Hannover, where he played well but clashed with the manager; back to MLS, spending time with Real Salt Lake, Colorado, New York, and LA; to Greek minnows Ergotelis, a strange, unexpected move that lasted a half-season; back to RSL; and finally to LA for the final chapter.
As brilliant as he was at various times, Mathis will go down as one of those players hounded by the question “What if?” What if he didn’t get hurt in New York that first time? What if he had transferred to Bayern Munich, as was rumored at the end of 2002? What if he had kept his mouth shut when he was benched at Hannover? What if he had stayed in shape after coming back to MLS? What if he had a different personality?
That last one isn’t worth contemplating. We wouldn’t have wanted Clint without Cletus. At least, I wouldn’t. Mathis’ attitude—the combination of Clint’s talent and Cletus’ swagger—was what made Mathis great.