Mathis has fond memories of 2002
Scoring a goal against one of the host nations and reaching the quarterfinals stand out
Editor's note: Throughout the World Cup, soccer blogger Scott French will look back and offer memories of the event from those who have participated. Next up is Clint Mathis.
Clint Mathis was a brash, sweet-talking midfielder with a true attacking sense when he joined the L.A. Galaxy for the first time, as a rookie in 1998. He was gone two years later -- Major League Soccer forced the Galaxy to give him up to acquire Mexican star Luis Hernandez -- but has been back twice, briefly for a David Beckham-led tour of Australia and New Zealand in 2007 and now as one of the club's senior leaders.
Very much a Southern gentleman -- he's from Conyers, Ga., and starred at the University of South Carolina -- he's a dynamic and emotional attacker who has scored big goals, especially during his time with the MetroStars, and has courted controversy. He has been red-carded nine times in MLS games, a league record, and his stint with German club Hannover 96 was cut short when he celebrated a goal as a substitute by running to his coach and tapping his wrist as he would a watch (signaling his displeasure about his playing time).
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Hannover, however, was a good experience for the much-traveled Mathis. He met his wife, former UCLA soccer star Tracey Winzen, there. The Orange County native was playing in the Frauen-Bundesliga, Germany's much-respected women's league.
Mathis has played twice in New York, twice with Real Salt Lake and in Colorado, and he spent part of a season with Crete-based Ergotelis, a top-flight Greek club.
He made his U.S. national team debut in 1998 and was a regular started by 2001. He was a major contributor to the 2002 World Cup team, which advanced to the quarterfinals in South Korea.
The World Cup went to Asia for the first time, and for the first time it was staged in two countries, with South Korea and Japan as co-hosts. The U.S. was in the Korean half of the bracket and in the same first-stage group as South Korea.
"It was crazy. We were staying in Seoul, and it was amazing to experience that. And with [South Korea] being in our group, amazing to experience playing the home team with all the people supporting them."
The U.S. team had a lot of up-and-coming players, including Landon Donovan, John O'Brien, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Lewis and Mathis, and a veteran core with Eddie Pope, Claudio Reyna, Earnie Stewart and goalkeepers Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tony Meola.
"We had a good group of young guys and a lot of good veterans. That was probably, for the most part, the first wave of a lot of guys playing over in Europe, then a young group of guys that were playing well in MLS. It was just a good mix. I think Bruce [Arena, the U.S. coach] did an excellent job of mixing young guys with maybe a little bit of attitude and some veterans who had been there before. And all the guys were great soccer players. All the guys could play."
Mathis' skill was a plus for the U.S., but so was his demeanor.
"I like to have fun. I like to make people laugh. And I think going into that situation, I didn't let nerves get to me. I was always calm under pressure. At that time, that's when I was scoring a lot, I was able to dribble players, create attacking situations, and I think that was mainly my role, to create something and get in there and try to finish it off."
The U.S. was considered a long shot to emerge from the group. No host nation had failed to qualify for the knockout stage, and the Americans would play one of the title contenders, Portugal, in its opener. Three first-half goals -- by O'Brien, an own goal and by Brian McBride -- gave the Yanks a stunning advantage, and they held on for a 3-2 victory.
"We went in as the underdog, but we were able to get an early goal and then another one of a cross/shot that the keeper parried in the corner. We got up to an early lead, but they were a great team. They came back, got two on us, but we were able to hold them off.
"I think that set the tone, that game there, for our World Cup, that we did have a chance when everyone else counted us out."
The U.S. then played South Korea to a 1-1 tie, with Mathis scoring in the 24th minute.
"I remember everything about that goal. The ball coming in, me taking my touch, knowing that a defender was going to be coming on me pretty soon because I was able to get in that gap, so I wanted to be able to hit it first time. And right when I hit it, I looked up and saw it was going past the keeper and it was just an amazing feeling.
"You could hear the few fans we had in the opposite end, in the corner, because the crowd was totally silent. All you could hear was just the few American fans screaming.
"That's one of the best moments of my life, 100 percent. It's something I'll be able to tell my children as they get older, and they'll tell their children. That's something I'll never forget."
The U.S. closed group play with a loss to Poland and advanced to the round of 16 only when South Korea, on a 70th-minute goal by Park Ji Sung, beat Portugal, 1-0.
"When we beat Portugal, we were like, 'Well, you know, this was the tough game in our group.' I think we could say that we didn't get the result against the team we probably should have, in Poland, but things fell our way, and after that we had a belief that we could do something."
The Americans reached the quarterfinals by beating Mexico, their archrival. Mathis watched from the bench.
"That was great. There's a long rivalry between the countries, and to be able to do it on a world stage and not just in a friendly or in a qualifier in Columbus -- to do it to move on to the quarterfinals -- it was just a great feat in itself."
The U.S. lost to Germany, 1-0, in the quarterfinals, and things might have gone different had Torsten Frings been penalized for a hand ball on the goal line. Mathis came off the bench in that game.
"We probably played our best game against Germany, and probably should have won that game and didn't. If you look at it, we would have been playing South Korea in the semifinals, so it was a pretty crazy story, and it could have happened where we could have been in the final."
Mathis has played in many big games, in MLS, for European clubs, and for the national team. Nothing compares with the World Cup.
"Just the pressure. It's do or die. It only happens every four years, the entire world's watching, it's not a friendly or a World Cup qualifier or anything like that. I mean, the whole world is going to be watching your game. And I think just the intensity, not only on the field with the other players, but in the stands, on TV -- it's all World Cup, World Cup. You can't get around it.
"As soon as you step out of the hotel room to make it down to the lobby or into the streets or on the bus to go to training, there's just so much coverage worldwide, and it makes a big difference for sure."
Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.