COLUMBUS, Ohio _ Clint Mathis knew. Immediately.
If you've ever injured an anterior cruciate ligament _ ACL in sports medicine terminology _ you never forget the feeling. First, the excruciating pain, which lasts only a few minutes. Then, worse, comes the "dead-leg" sensation, a "wobbly" feeling in your knee.
Then comes a sense of foreboding, deep in your stomach.
Yeah, Mathis knew, soon as he hit the ground during his U.S. national soccer team's practice nearly a month ago _ June 5 _ at the training facility of Major League Soccer's Columbus Crew. One report said he screamed, "My God, I've torn my ACL!"
The day after his injury, the former University of South Carolina star is leaning on crutches at Crew Stadium, where 24 hours later the U.S. team will play Ecuador to a 0-0 deadlock in an international "friendly" match. He grins impishly.
"It's probably good," he says, laughing, "they didn't put down what I REALLY said."
The injury to his right knee is no laughing matter, for Mathis or for the U.S. team. He underwent surgery to repair his torn ACL in Los Angeles on Tuesday; next comes rehabilitation that will sideline him until November or December.
Mathis will miss the rest of his MLS season with the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, plus the final seven matches of the U.S. team's qualifying schedule for the 2002 World Cup. A shame, considering that in the U.S.'s first three qualifiers, the young midfielder had emerged as the team's rising star.
The U.S. team, now a surprising 4-0-1, faces Mexico on Sunday in Mexico City's Aztec Stadium, needing probably only a single tie in its final five qualifying matches to assure a trip to Japan and South Korea for next year's World Cup.
It was during the Americans' first game against Mexico, on Feb. 28 at Crew Stadium, that Mathis and former USC teammate Josh Wolff came off the bench and hooked up for an electrifying goal, and the decisive score, in that 2-0 decision.
"Most people," Mathis says, "think we're not supposed to beat Mexico. That opened a lot of eyes." For the U.S., and for the two former Gamecocks.
A month later, in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Mathis drilled home the game-winner in the U.S.'s 2-1 victory over Honduras, a 22-yard free kick.
"A great goal, a high-pressure goal," said reporter Jerry Trecker of Internetsoccer.com and the Hartford Courant, who's covered soccer for 47 years. "He literally silenced 48,000 people."
Then on April 25 in Kansas City, in front of 37,319 U.S. fans, Mathis headed a ball to Wolff, who tapped it home for a 1-0 win over Costa Rica. "Clint's a game-breaker," Wolff says. "He does things a lot of people can't do. He can score himself or set up others." …