Rockdale's Mathis has to chance to win MLS title

He wanted to play for the national team. He wanted to score a goal in a World Cup. He wanted to play in Europe. He wanted to win a championship.

He has accomplished the first three. He has a chance at the fourth when his Real Salt Lake team takes on the David Beckham-led Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday in the MLS Cup, the championship game of the league's season.

"We've done well against them this year," Mathis, a midfielder said. "They are a good team. They are a much better team than when we played them. We played them without Beckham. Play solid defense like we have done in the playoffs, we can win."

The average sports fan might not know who Mathis is, but they might know who he was: the man with the mohawk who scored for the United States against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup. The photo of Mathis, arms raised as he celebrates the goal that gave his team a 1-0 lead, is one of the first results of an Internet search of his name.

Before that World Cup, Mathis was the next big thing in American soccer. He was going to be the goal-scorer who would help make the United States a superpower in the world's most popular sport. He was on the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. He was a fireball on the pitch and a mellow dude off it.

After that World Cup, things didn't turn out quite like Mathis hoped.

To be considered one of the best, Mathis needed to play for one of the best. German power Bayern Munich tried to secure him on a transfer in 2002 from MLS, where he was playing for the New York MetroStars (now the Red Bulls). The league wouldn’t let him leave. Mathis became angry.

He eventually signed with another German club, Hannover 96, in 2004 and was a hit, scoring four goals in five games. But the coach who signed him was fired, and the new coach parked Mathis on the bench for most of 2004 for an incident in one of his few appearances. After he scored, Mathis made an American-style gesture toward the coach by pointing to an imaginary watch, indicating that he wanted more playing time.

After some further travels, Mathis is back in Utah with a new role. Instead of being a sniper as a forward (he holds the MLS record with five goals in one game in 2000), he is a playmaker for younger, faster players up front.

Despite playing for nine teams in 10 years and not playing for the U.S. team since 2005, Mathis said he has no regrets.

"Don't hold any regrets in my life," Mathis said. "Whether they're good decisions or bad decisions, they are learning experiences. Would your life be different one way or another? Sure. Even when I've made bad decisions, I've learned from it."

He met his wife (who also played soccer) in Germany, so something good came from that experience. They have a 15-month-old son, Maximus, named after the hero in the movie "Gladiator." Mathis said he will show his boy the SI magazine one day and explain what he used to do for a living.

Now 32, Mathis says he thinks he has a couple of more years of soccer left in him. He said he and Stone Mountain native Josh Wolff have talked of their desire to one day come home and play for an MLS expansion team in Atlanta, should the city get a franchise.

He tries to make it home for Thanksgiving or Christmas each year, but his mother, brother, sister and their families might go see him in Salt Lake this year. He has a title to win, so he hasn't had a lot of time to plan his holidays.

All in all, not bad for a kid from Conyers, who offered this advice to kids who hope to follow in his boots:

"I came from a small town in Georgia that no one would have ever thought about," Mathis said. "Whether they grow up in the ghetto or in a small, redneck town, put your mind to it and know that you can succeed at it. Just got to have that confidence. Don't give up. Know that I am going to do this."

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