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RSL: Big name, big game

Published March 28, 2005 1:23 am

Familiar face: Mathis provides star power for expansion club
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Eddie Pope and Clint Mathis are two of the biggest names, and most talented players, ever to come out of the United States' soccer program.

And they'll both play for Real Salt Lake this season.

Great news, right?

It could be a little more complicated.

Pope, one of the team's oldest players at 31, is a quiet, lead-by-example player. Teammates past and present would wait in line just to heap praise on the expert defender, a two-time MLS Cup winner with D.C. United and a regular starter on the U.S. national team. He's the ultimate professional, a player who handles himself well on and off the field.

"He just exudes confidence on the ball,'' said RSL teammate and all-time MLS leading scorer Jason Kreis. "He exudes confidence in the way he reads the game so well. He's spent some time in the league, over nine years. And all those things he's experienced show up day in and day out for him."

On the surface, Mathis is everything Pope isn't.

One of the best scoring threats for the U.S. national team, Mathis is politely described as a colorful player with a fiery personality. His detractors have called him the "bad boy" of American soccer and a punk. Still, he puts fans in the seats, and many of his teammates say there's no one they would rather play alongside.

"With Clint, some people listen to him and some people don't,'' said midfielder Andy Williams, who played with Mathis on the MetroStars. "A lot of people don't like Clint's personality. I don't mind."

Mathis joins RSL after a rough go-round with Hannover 96 of the German Bundesliga. He started strong, scoring four goals in his first five games with the club. But a well-publicized incident with new coach Ewald Lienen, after Lienen effectively benched Mathis, put the player back on the front pages of sports sections overseas, and for the wrong reason.

Mathis scored a goal, just 90 seconds after he entered at the tail end of a game against Schalke 04, then grabbed his crotch and then tapped his wrist as if to let Lienen know he should've been put in earlier.

"That was pretty much my last game with that team,'' Mathis said.

Not long after the showdown with Lienen, Mathis learned his former coach John Ellinger was taking over the new MLS team in Salt Lake City. Though he had planned on staying in Europe - with a different team - Mathis had made a promise to Ellinger long ago.

He said he would come play for his old friend if Ellinger ever coached an MLS team.

Ellinger jumped at the chance to bring Mathis back to the U.S., and the timing was right for the player.

"It wasn't going well in Hannover at the time,'' Ellinger said. "He just never got into that guy's good graces.''

Longtime friend and on-again, off-again teammate Brian Dunseth thinks Mathis is unfairly characterized.

"He's had a lot of detractors, a lot of people go against him,'' Dunseth said. "They say he's not fit, he's too involved in off-the-field stuff. Clint has more desire and heart than anyone gives him credit for. At the end of the day, he gets it.''

Mathis' achievements are hard to ignore. He is the only player in the MLS to have scored five times in one game. It was, in part, his ability to put the ball in the back of the net that helped the U.S. to a better-than-expected finish at the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea.

But it remains to be seen how his tenure with RSL will play out.

The one player everyone else looks up to has an opinion.

"I think it's fine,'' said Pope, of Mathis. "Teams have all kinds of personalities."