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Mathis Never Fulfilled Expectations at Salt Lake

Real Salt Lake, which finished next to last in its inaugural Major League Soccer season, is rebuilding for 2006 and Coach John Ellinger already has made some interesting moves.

The most significant occurred Monday, when Real traded high-budget and high-maintenance attacking midfielder Clint Mathis to the Colorado Rapids for forward Jeff Cunningham.

Mathis was one of the U.S. stars of the 2002 World Cup, where his goal against South Korea was almost as memorable as his Mohawk hairdo. But he was a disappointment in Salt Lake.

Brought in as the expansion team’s go-to guy, Mathis delivered three goals and four assists in 27 games -- not the sort of numbers to justify his $410,000 salary, eighth-highest in the league.

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Ellinger said Tuesday that Mathis, 29, took forever to get over being left out of the World Cup qualifiers by U.S. Coach Bruce Arena and never really understood how much was expected of him in Salt Lake.

“Getting dropped from the national team was a pretty devastating blow for him and it took him a long, long time into the season before he turned the switch back on,” Ellinger said.

“I think Clint will be the first to tell you that he didn’t play up to standard. It was definitely an off year for Clint.”

As a star among other stars in his two-plus seasons with the Galaxy and four years with the MetroStars, Mathis failed to raise his game when the spotlight shone on him alone, Real teammates Eddie Pope and Jason Kreis notwithstanding.

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“Clint’s always kind of been a star but he’s never had that quote-unquote superstar title next to him,” Ellinger said. “He never knew that the expectations were that much greater.

“When he comes into an expansion team and he’s our marquee player, he’s got to be the guy, he’s got to drive the bus.”

Real Salt Lake’s bus ended up in a ditch, the team’s 5-22-5 record being only marginally better than that of Chivas USA’s 4-22-6.

A poor season and a high salary seemed to be a combination that would make Mathis impossible to trade, but Real Salt Lake managed it, even though it had to swallow a large portion of Mathis’ salary to get Colorado to bite.

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“Jeff comes with a pretty good tag himself,” Ellinger said of Cunningham, whose salary is just over half that of Mathis but who had 12 goals and three assists in 2005, fourth best in the league.

“Getting goal-scoring forwards of that caliber is not an easy thing, so it kind of made sense.”

Kind of.

Cunningham is the latest of a handful of players picked up by Real Salt Lake, which has acquired, among others, Costa Rica national team defender Douglas Sequeira from Chivas USA as well as goalkeeper Scott Garlick and midfielder Carey Talley, both from FC Dallas.

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Another U.S. national team player on the move is defender Danny Califf of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Califf has signed with Aalborg BK of the Danish Superliga and will return to Europe next month.

Califf, who enjoyed five successful years with the Galaxy, spent 10 days in Norway in January trying out with the Oslo club Valerenga and had wanted to return to Scandinavia since.

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Califf, 25, will leave for Denmark in early January and will not take part in the U.S. national team camp that opens Jan. 4 at the Home Depot Center.

Considering that he was an integral part of the league’s best defense in 2005, Califf is not out of the 2006 World Cup picture by any means and Arena could well call upon him later in the year.

Califf is leaving San Jose just in time. On Friday, AEG is expected to officially announce that the Earthquakes are relocating to Houston.

Meanwhile, Chivas USA Coach Bob Bradley left Monday for a week in Guadalajara, Mexico, where he will scout players, renew his acquaintance with Chivas de Guadalajara Coach Hans Westerhof and work on his Spanish.

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Galaxy Coach Steve Sampson leaves for South America right after the holidays to look at players in Sao Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil.

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Lamar Hunt has decided to bite the bullet and keep the Wizards in Kansas City and on the Hunt Sports Group payroll for at least another year.

It’s a good decision but there really wasn’t much choice.

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Hunt put the team up for sale 12 months ago, but local interest was only lukewarm in the absence of a soccer-specific stadium. As a result, there was talk that the Wizards might be relocated. On Tuesday afternoon, Hunt announced that even though the team is still for sale, it will remain in town and will play the 2006 MLS season at Arrowhead Stadium. Season ticket sales, which had been suspended, will resume.

“Within the past week we’ve gotten a substantial offer to purchase the team,” Hunt said. “We were not able to accept that offer because there were some conditions we didn’t find acceptable.

“The group interested in purchasing the team wanted to be sure there was a soccer-specific stadium here before they closed the deal.”

And if no new stadium is forthcoming?

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“In the event that the stadium process is not successfully underway in the next 10 months, the Wizards and MLS must realistically look to another community,” the Wizards said in a statement.

In other words, the sword hanging over Coach Bob Gansler and his players has not been removed, merely repositioned.


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