Everyone has an opinion about Clint Mathis.
Some Real Salt Lake fans are still ticked about his unproductive 2005 and can't believe the club brought him back. Others have been impressed with his work ethic in his second stint with RSL and believe he's truly made a positive impact.
Some choose to look at his statistical production and wonder how a player with no goals and no assists in 11 games continues to get the starting nod at forward.
No matter the opinion from outsiders, the former castoff of Real Salt Lake is held in very high regard by a coaching staff that appears to have finally figured out how to motivate the talented Mathis, a player who's bounced around the world, clashing with one coach after another.
That hasn't been a problem in Utah.
Coach Jason Kreis and Mathis have been close friends for years, and that friendship gave Kreis insight into getting the most out of the former U.S. National Team star. It didn't require reading a bunch of motivational books either, it was simply a matter of open and honest communication.
"He's felt like coaches maybe didn't always feel like they could be honest with him because they were afraid about confrontation with him. He's a fiery individual and he's a guy that doesn't mind telling you how he feels," said Kreis, who was the best man at Mathis' wedding a few years ago.
"We've been completely honest and completely open with him, and we've spelled out to him all the things that he would have to do if he wanted to play for us and wanted to do well with us, and he's done all those things."
Mathis is coming off his second straight 90-minute performance of the season in last weekend's win over Chivas USA, and whether fans like it or not he's very much in Kreis' plans for the second leg this weekend and potentially beyond.
Even though Mathis hasn't logged a goal or an assist yet, it's tough to argue with the results. Since he joined the club in early August, RSL owns a solid 3-0-4 record when Mathis is in the starting line-up. Conversely, it lost four of the five matches when he didn't start and came on as a sub.
"At the end of the day I'm out there working my tail off, causing trouble, and not necessarily getting the assists or goals, but I'm creating chances just off of hard work and trying to win the ball back," said Mathis. "It doesn't matter who scores the goals, it's a matter of winning the game."
According to Kreis, the veteran Mathis brings so many other intangibles to the field besides goals and assists. Shockingly when looking back at 2005, he's actually passionate about these intangibles this time.
"He's another guy who wants to be on the ball and you need players like that this time of year. You need to have more possession, you need to have wiser choices in your possession," said Kreis. "He's a guy that's had so many high-pressure experiences, that this time of year he's also a guy that's not going to shy away from things and can lead by example. And the third factor, defensively he's been working extremely hard and has over the past several games."
Mathis is winning balls away from defenders and midfielders, and it's often leading directly to scoring chances. He created a glorious scoring chance for Robbie Findley last weekend by dispossessing a Chivas player in midfielder. Two weeks ago against FC Dallas, his intense effort in the midfield frustrated defender Marcelo Saragosa and ultimately led to his red card. Later in the match his defensive work helped RSL gain possession in midfield and two passes later Findley scored the RSL's all-important third goal in the 3-1 win.
Count midfielder Andy Williams, who was Mathis' teammate during the turbulent 2005 season, as one of those players who loves having the older, more mature version of Mathis on the field.
"He's a big key to our possession up top, and in the midfield he can drop back and make passes like what he did a couple times with Robbie," said Williams. "He probably has the most experience on the team playing in a couple World Cups."
Mathis has plenty of MLS playoff experience as well. Last Saturday was the 22nd time he's appeared in the playoffs, registering five goals and three assists during that span. He's confident another goal will come eventually.
He also knows it may or may not change the minds of some RSL fans who forged their opinions of Mathis back in the disastrous 2005 season.
"It was just a situation where the team didn't do well, and me being the name that came back from Europe to play here you're going to take a lot of heat," said Mathis. "That's just the way it goes, I don't really worry about that. I don't have any bad feelings toward that."
As for those who believe Mathis is a changed person following the birth in August of his first son, Maximus, he just laughs. "I've always been the same person," he said.Mathis might be the same person off the field, but on the field he's more passionate and harder working than he ever was in 2005.
RSL at Chivas USA
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
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