SPORTS

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May 25, 2001

Will Clint be a real gunslinger?

All of a sudden, it seems like the entire U.S. soccer world revolves around Clint Mathis. Granted, I certainly share in the excitement caused by America's newest soccer star, but this level of hype may be a bit unfounded.

About a month ago, Mathis scored a sensational goal after making a tremendous 60-yard run against the Dallas Burn. Along the way, Mathis cleanly beat three defenders before smacking the ball into the back of the net. Essentially, that goal put Mathis on the world map. Highlights of the strike were shown around the planet, and many MLS officials hailed the goal as one of best in the young league's history.

Mathis also had a great season last year with the Metrostars, and his current success on the international stage is quickly making the young Georgian a regular on the U.S. National Team.

Despite his success, it's too early to get carried away. The United States has produced a long line of forwards that will supposedly shine in the global spotlight. Anyone remember Roy Lassiter? Lassiter actually still holds the record for most goals scored in MLS, but his time with the national side has surely passed him by. Eric Wynalda has the most goals on the national team, but he is still struggling in the MLS, and his national team days are also long gone. Joe-Max Moore sparkled briefly in England with his Premiership team, Everton, but through injury and sagging luck, Moore has not been able to regain his once top-flight form. Overall, America has seen its share of strikers burst onto the scene quickly, only to fade away frighteningly fast.

Certainly, Mathis has scored some great goals. Indeed, his free kick abilities may already distinguish him from the rest of the U.S. players. Nevertheless, Mathis has not proven himself yet. Like any true footballer with tell you, consistency, not ephemeral glory, will truly separate a single player from the rest of the pack. Look at Gabriel Batistuta or Romario: they've been scoring goals with terrifying consistency for more than a decade. In nearly any league or at any stage, these two players find ways to produce results. Ronaldo, before his devastating injury, also produced goals in a consistent fashion. From the Netherlands to Spain to Italy, Ronaldo always scored, despite the varying forms of competition he faced in these leagues.

Right now, Clint Mathis must remain under the microscope. Will he fade after a couple of seasons of success? Will he travel to Europe in search of greener pastures and a chance to prove himself against the game's elite? Because, truth be told, Mathis has done very little to garner such acclaim. He's been playing great soccer for the past six months, but can he stay at this level for the next six to ten years? Only the true soccer greats can stand the test of time. So far, every American striker to precede Mathis has failed this test.

Although many questions still linger about the validity of Mathis' talents at the highest level, his youth and his attitude are both on his side. Many writers, including some of the top brass from Sports Illustrated and ESPN, claim that Mathis must stay in the MLS to provide star power (and ticket sales) for the struggling league. Certainly, Mathis must strive to aid the fledgling league, but, at some point, the young American must test his talents in Europe. The awkward timing of the MLS season may actually allow Mathis to do just that without sacrificing his obligation to American domestic soccer. The MLS season starts in spring and ends in the fall (given that the Metrostars advance deep into the playoffs, a feat that the talented squad can accomplish). This leaves a four-month gap for the MLS to loan Mathis to a top European club. Most European clubs play from the fall into the spring, so Mathis could certainly spend a fruitful fall and winter with a European club.

This proposal calls for Mathis to play nearly a full year of soccer, something that even top athletes have trouble doing. Nevertheless, Mathis stands as America's chief soccer talent. To prove himself as a truly special soccer player, he must test himself in Europe. The MLS is a great league, one that offers some stiff competition and challenges for any sort of player. Nothing in the United States, however, can compare to the pressure and intensity of a Champions League match played at Old Trafford or a critical league match taking place at the Nou Camp. The MLS can only afford Mathis so much growth. After that, he'll stagnate, and he might just turn into another Roy Lassiter, or even an Eric Wynalda — a player who could never prove himself at the highest domestic level.

For the good of the MLS, the United States, and himself, Clint Mathis must do everything in his power to avoid such a graceless fate.