For the last two years, every time Clint Mathis pulled on his No. 84 jersey, he thought of his toddler son. So it seemed only fitting that when he pulled his jersey off for the final time Saturday, he did so with his family in mind as well.
Riddled by knee injuries that have made it painful to walk, much less run, Mathis took one final bow during the Galaxy's international friendly with Real Madrid in front of a Rose Bowl crowd of more than 70,000. Then he hobbled off into retirement, ending a record-setting 13-year career that included one of the most memorable goals in U.S. World Cup history.
"Retiring, it's always tough," said Mathis, 33, who switched to No. 84 to mark his son's Aug. 4 birth. "But it's the situation that I'm in. I'm out there beating myself up, trying to get this knee back. It's just not coming back like it was.
"I have two children at home and a wife. So I think it's more important to be able to do stuff with them as I get older. And if I continued to do what I was doing, it would have definitely limited me."
Mathis' latest injury came shortly after he began his third stint with the Galaxy, when he tore cartilage in his left knee during training camp. As a result, Saturday's start against Real Madrid was his first in a season in which he played briefly in only nine games. (For the result of Saturday's friendly, go to latimes.com.)
"That's the least we can do to recognize his contributions. Not only to this organization but to U.S. soccer as well," said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who gave Mathis the captain's armband Saturday.
Arena was coaching the U.S. team in the 2002 World Cup when Mathis, his hair cut into a mohawk, scored perhaps the most important goal in national team history, a left-footed volley that gave the Americans a tie with South Korea and a spot in the knockout round.
"Clint has been arguably our most talented player," said Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan, who played alongside Mathis in the 2002 World Cup. "I remember from my first [training] camps with him thinking that I had never seen an American player with that kind of power. And he still, to this day, does things that a lot of guys just can't do or wouldn't even think of doing."
Gone, however, are the days when Mathis was being wooed by the German Bundesliga and gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. Gone, too, are the days when Mathis was scoring a Major League Soccer-record five goals in a game, or earning a league-record nine red cards.
And that, Mathis said, hastened his decision to step aside now rather than be a distraction to the MLS-leading Galaxy for the rest of the season. Saturday's friendly, however, gave him a chance to go out on his own terms — on the field at the Rose Bowl, his first professional soccer home.
"I thought it was important for the coaching staff to concentrate on the team unity and everything," said Mathis, who scored 61 goals in 11 MLS seasons and 12 in 46 appearances with the U.S. national team. "So I was like 'Hey, we've got a friendly coming up. It's in the Rose Bowl, which is where I wanted to play my last game.'
"Everything just aligned. It's so just funny how it did work out for me and made it so easy."