- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

Let’s be honest - American soccer needs more players like Clint Mathis.

Mathis isn’t the best player to compete in Major League Soccer or the most talented player to wear the U.S. jersey, but he sure brings charisma and a unique character to the game.

It’s hard to categorize the Real Salt Lake midfielder, who has been a free spirit throughout his playing days. Mathis, a 10-year veteran of MLS, has been labeled a lot of things: cocky, eccentric, flamboyant, wild, unpredictable, outspoken, hothead, underachiever, brilliant.

His career has seen some dramatic swings - his game looked washed up for a while, but suddenly Mathis is back in the news.

On Saturday, Mathis faces his old club, the New York Red Bulls, in the Western Conference final at Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake’s new soccer-specific stadium, in what is the biggest game in the history of both teams. With a win, Real Salt Lake goes to the MLS Cup final to face the Columbus Crew on Nov. 23.

Family, faith and time have mellowed the 31-year-old native of Conyers, Ga. In August, the well-traveled Mathis returned to Real Salt Lake, where he has yet to score a goal in 11 games. Still, he has made an impact: When Mathis is on the field, his team wins.

“He’s a player I’m comfortable to be with, and I know what he brings to the table,” Real coach Jason Kreis said. “He brings a lot of veteran leadership.”

The team has gone 4-0-4 in games Mathis started.

“He brings a lot of calm in pressure situations,” Kreis said. “He’s a player that wants the ball no matter what kind of game it is.”

Mathis has turned into a mature and wise player. He has the ability to hold the ball and thread long, precise passes. His coach is happy with his work on defense, too.

There always has been a certain swagger about Mathis’ play to go along with his rebellious look. Mathis was American soccer’s big star back in 2002, reaching the front page of Sports Illustrated. He scored some scintillating goals: Who can forget his stunning goal against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup?

Suddenly, he was a hot property who seemed certain to join German giant Bayern Munich, a deal that never came off. Mathis’ star gradually faded, and he bounced around to a number of clubs.

Mathis’ first outing with Real Salt Lake came in 2005 as the marquee player on an expansion team. He arrived bearing a mohawk and star power, but it didn’t translate onto the field.

Now life is happier. Mathis is playing under Kreis, a former Real player who served as the best man at his wedding.

“He’s been a difference maker for us,” Kreis said. “Certainly not in a statistical category but he’s done a lot of things well so that other players can shine.”

His years in New York were productive, but the lure of the Manhattan club life was a distraction. Come the 2006 World Cup, Mathis was nowhere to be seen.

Now Mathis is one game away from the MLS final.

As for the Red Bulls, they arrive in Utah on the heels of a stunning upset of two-time MLS champion Houston on the road, a victory that has been called the greatest in the 13-year history of the club.

New York now has history on its side: It has never lost to Salt Lake, posting a 2-0-6 mark.

It would be nice for the New York franchise finally to reach the MLS Cup, but it also would be fitting for Mathis to get there, too: A character like Mathis needs a big stage.

Note - D.C. United midfielder Fred will join Australian side Wellington FC Phoenix on a short-term loan. The Brazilian will be eligible to play six matches with the Phoenix starting with their match Nov. 23. Fred previously played in Australia with the Melbourne Victory.

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