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Mar 29, 2005

Potholes and index fingers

Devotees,

I think I made a big mistake. I don't know if it's the cardinal sin of being a writer, for which we could argue about whether I am or not, but I just re-read some of the material from years past and I have to say, I'm good. Now the word "good" is relative to one's perspective, and of course I have the utmost bias, but as I make the switch from one conglomerate, Sports Illustrated with their historical pre-eminence and undeniable Swimsuit Issue, to another, ESPN, whose very whim controls the fluxion of the sports market, "good" becomes pressure.

Not a pressure that asphyxiates my imagination or propagates fear, but a pressure that is highlighted by this sage piece of advice I received from a friend. He spoke in all seriousness, will remain nameless, and is working hard to being ousted from my inner circle:

"No longer will you wilt away on the bottom rungs of a website, no longer will I have to click 47 times to find your assessments on the powers that be, no longer will there be a bad picture of you next to your name. Now that you've made the change to ESPN, you will be more visible, you will have higher readership, so dude, you need to be funnier."

I can orate on my soapbox at length about the different types of pressure facing a writer (editors, deadlines, subject matter) or a professional athlete (performance, being part of a team, conduct in public) but nothing comes near the pressure of trying to "be funnier."

How can someone "be funnier"? Should I be using this space to tell jokes? So MLS Commisioner Don Garber, team owners Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt walk into a bar, and Lamar says to Phil, "So I've got this small market team playing in a cavernous stadium..."

Either I can try to "be funnier" which is impossible on a variety of levels or I can be me, or shall I say I. Actually I just got back from Costa Rica where my team, the fun-loving Kansas City Wizards, were slated to play the second leg of our CONCACAF match-up against Saprissa, the champion of the Costa Rican 1st division.

After tying them 0-0 eight days earlier in front of a near sold out Section 122 at Arrowhead Stadium, we arrived two days prior to kick-off in San Jose, Costa Rica. As we hopped on the bus and slithered our way through the maze of side streets and partial highways, I gazed out the window and happened upon a ubiquitous phenomenon: Costa Ricans like to stand in the street.

Sometimes they're moving, or jaywalking to us Americans, sometimes they're sitting in the middle divider of a highway having a conversation with their 3 year old (I swear to you I saw this), and sometimes they wanted to get your attention to let you know just what they felt about some gringo American soccer players. In fact, I'm still amazed how they can get all of that emotion across with only one finger sticking up.

But there were others as well who demanded to make eye contact and these clever individuals didn't heed to the one finger salute, instead they wanted to offer their predictions. Hence any time we were inching along the asphalt or at a complete standstill, these "clairvoyants" gave us the score of us versus their beloved Saprissa. The over whelming favorite was a 5 - 0 thrashing sprinkled with some closer contests of 3 - 0 and 2 - 0, but clearly to the locals getting embarrassed was our only option.

Thus, let's take a moment and imagine my surprise when I got caught in the tractor beam of this man's glare. He was pointing toward the direction of the bus and then held up his index finger of which I can only translate it as my team scoring a goal. After that, he pointed to his watch and squeezed his two fingers together then pointed to his chest and again held up one index finger. This I assumed meant his team scored with little time left to tie the game 1-1. He then pulled out another watch which I understood to be extra time, pointed to his chest, put up two fingers, pointed to the bus, wrapped his hands around his throat and abruptly stopped, which I interpreted as my Wizards choking the lead away and losing 2-1 to Saprissa in extra time.

As the bus drove off into the distance and headed to our hotel, I enjoyed a hearty chuckle thinking about the length at which he described his prediction, the Costa Rican Macarena if you will, and at the time I was happy someone thought we could score a goal. But after the game, I was stunned because his insight was exactly what transpired. We lost 2-1 in extra time.

After wallowing in what-could-have-been's and what-have-you's, I was met the next day following the game with sunshine and an old friend. The sunshine was a welcome reprieve of the previous night's gloom and the old friend was none other than Mauricio Wright. I played with Mauricio Wright for over a year with the San Jose Clash/Earthquakes and we remained good friends throughout his MLS career.

Our communication went astray when he left the league to go back to Costa Rica to play for his national team in the 2002 World Cup. Mauricio scored against China and had an assist against Brazil in the tourney, and he continues to ply his trade for Heredia of the Costa Rican 1st Division. He called my hotel room, the only time my phone rang in 8 days, and said, "JIMBO! I'm in the lobby."

I put on my daily uniform of odoriferous running shoes, no socks (which could be the culprit of any emanating odors), below-the-knee length shorts, a "Big Lebowski" T-shirt and loped down the hall to see my pal. We exchanged hugs, pleasantries, some stories about past teammates until he declared, "JIMBO! Let's go eat."

We got into his car, I eased myself into the front seat and realized I hadn't seen anything of Costa Rica outside of the finger-wavers, crazy fans at Saprissa's stadium, and the back of Davy Arnaud's head, who per tradition, sits in the seat ahead of me on the bus. As we worked our way around town I felt like I was seeing the country for the first time in all it's panoramic beauty and I was full of questions:

"How come there are no street signs?"

"Does anyone know where they are going?"

"Is that why there is so much traffic?"

"Do you find girls with hairy armpits attractive?"

"Are Americans well liked here?"

"Is jaywalking a national pastime?"

"Are the police undercover because I haven't seen any?"

"Soccer players are celebrities here right?"

"Do you prefer pancakes or French toast?"

Thankfully, Mauricio had a very good grasp of the English language and answered my questions with due diligence and a courteous smile. We ate pizza, which is undoubtedly the first thing I have to experience when visiting any Central American country, enjoyed the comforts of his home and beautiful family for a few hours, and then headed back to the structure of perfectly made beds and fresh towels. On our way, I had one last question,

"So tell me about Costa Rica. What's it like?"

He grabbed the steering wheel with both hands, stared straight ahead for a moment, and said,

"Well, the Colombians are ruining the country, our young girls want to have babies at fifteen, but oh man, Jimbo, let me tell you what the worst thing is…it's the potholes. They're everywhere."

Potholes!

Jimmy Conrad is a defender for Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.