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Rapids get Mathis for Cunningham

Clavijo thinks trade gives team a better player, frees up cap

Published December 13, 2005 at midnight

Jeff Cunningham's stormy one-year tenure with the Colorado Rapids ended Monday when the All-Star forward was traded to Real Salt Lake for equally controversial Clint Mathis.

Cunningham, 29, made headlines with the Rapids for his goals-scoring ability and his rocky relationship with coach Fernando Clavijo.

Cunningham was suspended last season for leaving the bench after he was pulled early in the second half of a game.

Although Clavijo repeatedly said the incident was behind them, Cunningham played diminishing minutes even as the Rapids were fighting for a higher playoff seed.

"I've already been asked if this (trade) had anything to do with the altercation," Clavijo said. "It had absolutely nothing to do with that."

"I was very honored that the Rapids wanted me," Mathis said. "Fernando is the type of coach who has played the game and knows exactly what he wants."

Real Salt Lake finished 5-22-5.

"Last year wasn't a fun time for anyone in the Salt Lake organization," Mathis said. "I got blamed for a lot of stuff there. That kind of goes with the territory, when you're one of the best-known players on the team."

Mathis scored only three goals for expansion Real Salt Lake. Considering he's one of the three highest-paid players in Major League Soccer, the lack of production led to his classification as the league's biggest bust last season.

Clavijo, though, believes Mathis still has more top-level soccer left in him. Clavijo said he made the trade because he believes Mathis is a better all-around player than Cunningham and for financial considerations that will free up salary-cap space.

The latter reason means Real Salt Lake will pay a good portion of Mathis' salary while he's with the Rapids.

"When you look at the whole package, Clint Mathis will be an asset for the team," Clavijo said. "I think the deal that we did with Salt Lake not only allowed us to improve our team but allowed us more room to bring in even more quality players. It's a win-win situation."

Clavijo admitted Mathis brings some emotional baggage with him. The Mohawk-coiffed forward had been a star on the U.S. national team while qualifying for the last World Cup, but he was criticized by coach Bruce Arena for being out of shape.

In MLS last season, Mathis recorded three goals and four assists in 2,123 minutes and Cunningham had 12 goals and three assists in 1,670 minutes.

Clavijo acknowledged the disparity but said Mathis played for a nonplayoff team on an artificial surface (Rice-Eccles Stadium) with teammates who weren't as skilled at getting him the ball as Cunningham's.

"When I look at comparing players, I look at more than scoring goals," Clavijo said.

"I know that he's going to score more than that. I know that he's going to make people run and play better.

"Jeff is a typical, natural goal scorer, no question about that. But he didn't make anybody better around him.

"Clint is the other way around. Maybe he doesn't score as many goals, but he gets the ball to other players."

Clavijo asked Rapids fans to embrace Mathis.

"I hope the players, the fans, give (Mathis) a chance," Clavijo said. "He's going to help this team to develop, to be a powerhouse in MLS, and that's what my goal is."

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