Some players can be defined with one extraordinary performance, the rare type of occasion where all of their skills are summarized in a single brilliant outing. For the Metrostars and Clint Mathis, that was the case on a thrilling August night in 2000.

Visiting the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) in a match that could clinch the Eastern Division for the squad, New York was at the closing stages of their best season since launching in 1996. After five head coaches in only four years, manager Octavio Zambrano was brought on ahead of the new campaign, and was getting the best out of his players. The attack was particularly impressive, and much of that was due to the addition of Mathis up front.

Clint Mathis, a demolition of Dallas and the European dream

After two years with the Los Angeles Galaxy, Mathis moved across the country to join the Metrostars. It was a point in time where everything was coming together at the right moment for the Georgia native, as he was also a key part of the US national team’s push for 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification.

Against a formidable Dallas side, New York would win their division for the first time in a wild 6-4 victory. Mathis would set a league record with five of those goals.

Consistently putting himself in the best possible positions, Mathis made the most of each scoring opportunity that came his way. Remarkably, his goals ended up being the difference as Dallas kept the pressure on the Metrostars’ defense throughout the game also.

Speaking with reporters after the match, Mathis showcased his commitment to team success and was more focused on New York’s overall accomplishments as opposed to his own magnificent evening. ”We did a great job of putting pressure on all night on the Burn defense. Things just seemed to go our way during the game. I was in the zone and every shot I took went in each time. However, what is important is not my five goals, but the fact that we won the Eastern Division title.”

Derailed

This momentum towards the end of the regular season carried over to the playoffs, as New York fell just short of the MLS Cup final to Chicago in the semifinals.

Unfortunately for Mathis, the following year would bring a frustrating setback in his progression. A knee injury during the 2001 campaign saw him miss several months of action for both the Metrostars and the USMNT, but the forward was motivated to return even stronger.

A goal against South Korea at the World Cup and a positive 2002 season with New York had a transfer to Europe on his radar. Much of it started with a former teammate in Major League Soccer, and one who had significant contacts in Germany.

One of Bayern Munich’s greatest talents, Lothar Matthäus joined the Metrostars for the 2000 season and played alongside Mathis. A World Cup winner with his home nation and extremely successful during his club career with Bayern and Inter Milan, the high-profile midfielder would ultimately have little to no effect for New York during his short stint with the franchise. Matthäus would feature in only 16 games, but Mathis certainly caught his attention.

A move abroad

The 24-year-old striker met with Bayern in 2002. After they heard Matthäus’ praise, Bayern entered talks in signing the American. His contract with the Metrostars was set to run until the end of the 2003 campaign, and Munich were prepared with a fee in the region of $5 million. MLS would not accept any bid, leaving Mathis to play out the remainder of his contract in New York. This took place for multiple reasons, and can mostly be attributed to the league’s status at the time.

MLS sat on the financial brink. The Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny both dissolved. The 1998 World Cup was an unmitigated disaster for the US. There were serious doubts about the league’s long-term future. MLS desperately wanted to keep American talent within the league to help it grow. The league held back Mathis’ potential.

He finished out his deal, and moved on a free transfer to Bundesliga club Hannover in 2004. A bright start for the forward faltered due to a pivotal coaching change, and Mathis’ role began to evaporate.

Mathis returned to MLS the following year. He signed with Real Salt Lake and then produced one more season with New York in 2007 and retired in 2010. Looking back and examining the current state of MLS, things definitely could have been very different for Mathis.

MLS and the paradox of the young player

By 2013, American stars in Europe were finding MLS to be an enticing option, as salaries reached new heights. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore made their way back to North America, signing lucrative new deals. This is an idea that simply did not exist during the unsure days of 2002 for Mathis.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to consider how Mathis’ career could have progressed at Bayern Munich if he had joined the club in that fateful summer. Manager Ottmar Hitzfeld led the Bavarians to a league and cup double during the 2002-03 campaign, with potent play from forwards Claudio Pizarro and Giovane Élber sparking the attack. Mathis would have had great difficulty earning first-team minutes. However, he also would have benefitted from the overall competition of fighting for his place in the lineup.

Ironically, Bayern Munich set a new MLS transfer record this year with the signing of Vancouver Whitecaps youngster Alphonso Davies in a deal that could be worth up to $22 million. A different time and a different era, it is fascinating to see how opportunities can be both fleeting and dependent on the circumstances around us.

Clint Mathis was one of the most productive scorers in New York Red Bulls history. He currently sits in fourth on the club’s all-time scorer list with 45 goals across all competitions. A superb showing against Dallas in 2000 opened the doors for him abroad. He did eventually make his way to Germany, though the blocked move to Bayern Munich in 2002 could have unlocked a new path for him, and created a new blueprint for American strikers.

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