U.S. star may not be starter for Cup opener

Monday, June 3, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- Cover boy Clint Mathis might start the World Cup on the U.S. team bench. He's already been criticized by his coach.

The dynamic attacker is still recovering from knee surgery last summer, U.S coach Bruce Arena said Sunday, repeating that Mathis needs better work habits.

Because Arena is reluctant to start players who can't go 90 minutes, the remarks left open the possibility that Mathis won't be on the field when the Americans open Wednesday against Portugal. Arena hasn't publicly identified any of the players he intends to start.

"In the next couple of years, if Clint really wants to move forward, he has got to bend a little bit towards conforming to the way professionals on big clubs have to act," Arena said. "He'll get there." I think he's still fighting a little bit of the injury. ...

"It's been a tough month for him, because he was physically behind the other players. Having said that, I think he's got a real good future if he can just develop some better habits as a professional, and that will happen, and that's part of being in an environment where that is required of a player."

Arena has said for more than a month it would be difficult to start a player not fully fit.

"You can't base your substitutes based on fitness. Not only Clint," he said. "You can see why some teams are not playing players -- because they're less than 100 percent."

On Monday, Arena said he was satisfied with the performance in training of his entire team, including Mathis. "We've had a great run with our 23 players," he said.

Mathis, a 25-year-old midfielder and forward who plays for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, was hurt in practice last June 5 and didn't return to the national team until Jan. 27 as a reserve in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He's made 11 appearances this year, including seven starts, but has played just three complete games.

"In Clint's situation, I think any way you look at it, the knee injury he suffered is going to take time," Arena said Sunday. "For everybody, the road to recovery is different. His has been a little slower."

Mathis has been the most creative American player in the last two years, scoring the go-ahead goal in the semifinal qualifying win at Barbados that advanced the U.S. team; making the pass that led to the go-ahead goal in the win over Mexico that opened the final qualifying round; and scoring the lone goal at Honduras. According to Arena, Mathis hasn't been in pressure situations comparable to the World Cup.

"He hasn't been in big club games, international games, and he missed pressure-cooker games in qualifying," Arena said.

Mathis, in addition to his talent, also has an ebullient personality, one that makes him stand out.

"Clint's a good guy," Arena said. "I wouldn't say flaky, he's different."

When the Americans arrived at the World Cup, Mathis didn't shave for several days. He trimmed his beard to a Fu Manchu, then to a mustache.

"I imagine if I see him today his head will be shaved," Arena said.

Mathis, signed with Major League Soccer through next year, has spoken with Bayern Munich in Germany and Perugia in Italy, but no definite plans have been made.

"If he gets an opportunity at a big club, he's either going to make it or fail, right?" Arena said. "He's going to have those chances. It's no different from anybody else. It took Claudio (Reyna) a number of years to make it in Europe. (Brad) Friedel's fought it for years. (Kasey) Keller is fighting that now at Tottenham.

"It's all part of the environment. They don't really care who you are or where you're from. You do it our way and produce, and if not somebody else plays. It's a numbers game, and the bigger the club the more it's a numbers game."

Mathis was not available for comment Sunday. Former U.S. coach Steve Sampson thought Arena's comments were designed to motivate the player.

"I think Bruce is trying to help Clint become a professional," Sampson said. "He has the opportunity to become an exceptional player, but has to work a lot harder to recover from injuries and be physically fit. It's irresponsible to be otherwise."

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