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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Clint Mathis makes way back home to Galaxy

He returns to L.A., where his career began in 1998, bringing vast experience gathered in Europe and with several MLS teams.

January 31, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

Home is the player, home from . . . well, just about everywhere, it turns out.

Twelve years after he first wandered onto the Rose Bowl field as a Galaxy player in 1998, Clint Mathis is back in town.

Back then, he was a rookie, a first-round draft pick from the University of South Carolina with the red soil of Conyers, Ga., still clinging to his boots and the distinct twang in his voice.

Now, he is 33 and has traveled the world, playing professionally not only in the U.S. but also in Germany and Greece.

The goals don't come with the frequency they once did, but Mathis remains an offensive threat on the field.

Last season, when many believed that his career was coming to an end, he won a Major League Soccer championship with Real Salt Lake, helping to defeat the Galaxy on penalty kicks in the final in Seattle.

His resurgence did not escape the notice of Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who, as U.S. coach, had taken Mathis to South Korea in 2002, back in the day when the player sported a mohawk hairdo and played himself onto the cover of Sports Illustrated, even before Landon Donovan achieved similar recognition.

So Mathis is back, reunited not only with Arena but also with four of his 2002 World Cup teammates: Cobi Jones, now a Galaxy assistant coach, as well as Eddie Lewis, Gregg Berhalter and Donovan.

The mohawk, meanwhile, vanished years ago.

"It's a long time since I had hair," Mathis said, laughing.

Mathis might have wandered far and wide in the intervening years, playing for five MLS clubs as well as for Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga and for Ergotelis in the Greek league, but the siren song of Los Angeles has always called out to him.

"This is what I wanted," he said. "I've always said I wanted to end my career where I started. That doesn't always happen. People have wishes that don't always come true, but hopefully this is the last place I go.

"I've always enjoyed it here. I'm a redneck who grew up in a small town in Georgia. I love it there, but since I first came out here the first couple of seasons with L.A., this is where I've always wanted to live."

Just what role Mathis will play in 2010 is not yet clear. Neither he nor Arena has yet sorted that out.

"We really haven't sat down and talked about it," Mathis said. "We're doing what every team does at this point of the year, continuing to get the bodies right, staying healthy and getting as fit as possible before the season starts."

Could he be used as cover for Donovan, as a deep-lying striker, or as cover for David Beckham, playing out wide on the right as he did for Real Salt Lake last season? Both players will be gone for several weeks during the World Cup in South Africa and Mathis could plug either hole.

"It's whatever Bruce and the team needs," Mathis said. "I've done enough through my career and I'm fortunate enough to be able to move from position to position. It's just going to be based on what people we have here, the injuries we have and what positions need to be filled."

Arena is confident that Mathis still has a lot to offer.

"I think he's another player we can throw in the equation," the Galaxy coach said. "He's an experienced guy and he can still, I think, be a dangerous player in this league.

"He can probably create a little bit more for others at this point in his career, but he's still a guy who can shoot a ball, strike it with either foot in and around the penalty area -- something that we lack -- and he's an aggressive attacking player who is willing to take chances. That's a little bit different than we have.

"Last year, he played an awful lot of right midfield for Salt Lake, but I think he can play any of the positions in the midfield or up top."

Considering his age and the fact that he underwent knee surgery before the 2009 season, Mathis does not have the speed he once did, but Arena discounts that.

"I wouldn't say that's going to be his strength, but once he gets fit he's going to be fine there," Arena said. "Speed is not only physical speed, it's mental and technical, and I think the mental and technical he should have."

There are two months left before the 2010 season kicks off, and for the time being Mathis is simply enjoying being back in Los Angeles and back with some of his former teammates.

What lies ahead is unknown territory.

"This is a funny league," he said. "You never know what to expect. Nobody would have expected Real Salt Lake to win it last year, but that happened. A lot of people counted out L.A. last year, but they ended up making it to the final."

And will 2010 be the swan song for Mathis?

"I plan on playing as long as the body holds up," he said. "When I said I wanted to finish my career here, that doesn't mean this is my last season by any means.

"I feel really good. I had a good off-season and going into this season I feel confident that I'll be here more than a year."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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