It has taken me some time to figure out what I wanted to say since the last time we spoke, and fortunately, a handful of memorable moments have come to pass in the past thirty days: Playing for the national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Being named as a starter in the 2005 MLS All-Star Game. Finally and perhaps the most impressive feat, scoring the game winner against Chivas USA (which, according to league officials, only counts as half a goal due to the fact that everyone scores against Chivas).
And within any experience a story is to be had. So here's a story:
It's July 6th, the tenth day of national team camp, and I still don't know who is going to play against Cuba the following night in the opening game of the Gold Cup in Seattle. Up to this point, we have played in numerous intra-squad scrimmages, the 3-5-2 team (affectionately known as the "scout team") versus the 4-4-2 team (commonly known as the "first eleven") and for me, all signs pointed to the 4-4-2 team setting the tone for the tournament.
A) Our first 3 games are played in two cities over six days.
B) We have 23 players on our roster.
C) We plan to use everyone.
It continued in this vein for a couple of more minutes but I couldn't get my mind off of part C. I'm going to play for the national team. A dream realized.
Then the boss presented the lineup against Cuba., "In goal, Marcus Hahnemann. The back three will consist of Frankie Hejduk, Jimmy Conrad, and Tony Sanneh. The midfield will be Brad Davis wide left, Santino Quaranta wide right, Ben Olsen and Chris Armas in the middle, and DaMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey playing underneath Conor Casey up top."
Holy crap. A dream finalized.
I contain my smile and concentrate on the video clips of Cuba the coaching staff prepared for us, as we hash out their strengths and weaknesses. The meeting adjourns and training, interviews, dinner, phone calls, video games, card playing, and the rest of the day whisk by in my gleeful buzz. But then night falls. Everything is settled and quiet, too quiet.
My mind jumps into the silence with drums beating and trumpets announcing the arrival that I am wide awake. I turn the television on but it doesn't dull the velocity of my thoughts like it usually does, so I turn it off. I look at the clock. I observe that the air conditioning comes on for around five minutes and then goes off for five. I look at the clock again. My theory is not off by much.
I see my roommate, Brad Davis, is sleeping just fine. How is that possible? No one ever sleeps well before a big day (the prom, a wedding, first day of school, running a fitness test, the arrival of Halo 2), but then I remember the word "Ambien" escaping his lips. Cheater.
I shift from one side to another while adjusting the rocks in my pillow. I conclude that as long as I'm awake I might as well visualize different scenarios that could occur during the run of play. It doesn't take long for my thoughts to be muddled up with sleep. An example:
If I get the ball from Tony on the left side, then the space should be open in front of Frankie on the right. Frankie runs a lot.
I like to run a lot too.
So does my friend Howie.
I wonder how Howie's doing?
So if Howie steps up to defend, then I have to make sure the back line is stepping...
Sunlight bursts through a slit in the curtains and my eyes pop open. I roll out of bed and to my amazement, I feel great. I use the bathroom to beautify my armpits and teeth and after rounding up some shorts and a shirt, I quietly exit the room so not to wake sleeping beauty from his drug-induced slumber. I stroll to breakfast through the maze of elevators and hallways and the hostess seats me in a booth towards the back of the restaurant.
I unfold the newspaper from under my fresh smelling arm and leaf through it to the sports page. As my nose navigates the middle of an article about the game against Cuba, the server asks if I'm ready to order. I politely tell her that I will be having the buffet but a glass of orange juice and water would be much appreciated. She smiles and nods and I finish reading the fine print.
"It's game day," I whisper confidently to my napkin.
The liquids are placed on the table in front of me as I search for the daily crossword. I locate its whereabouts, take a sip of OJ, and realize that some food would be a nice complement to my near perfect set-up.
I bounce out of my seat and would have skipped, if skipping was an allowed social rite for a grown heterosexual man, but instead walked briskly to the smorgasbord of breakfast items. En route I recognize a high-ranking official on the U.S. Soccer food chain. His back is facing me so I decided that on the return leg from the food to my booth I should be able to make sufficient eye contact and say hello.
I load up my plate with all the essentials for kicking Cuban ass and cut a path towards executing my plan. I slow my pace, shift the plate from my right hand to my left, and say with unabashed excitement,
He extends his hand, we shake, and replies, "Good morning, Davy. Let me introduce you to my son."
"Uh, how's it going?" I stammer, turning towards the son.
"I don't know you. What team do you play for?" The son inquires.
"Davy plays for the Wizards," the official interrupts.
"Oh," the son says despondently.
"Wizards. It just rolls off the tongue doesn't it?" I jest.
"Well, it was nice to meet you. Have fun at the game tonight," I state politely.
I escape to my booth and take a moment to savor the exchange I was just a participant in. After inhaling all the protein and carbohydrates my stomach could hold, I made a promise to myself that by the end of the Gold Cup I would be so outrageously fantastic or make such a huge play that this official would have to remember what my name was.
We're twenty minutes into the Gold Cup Final versus Panama and the score is 0-0. We get a corner kick and I push up to make myself part of the attack. Landon Donovan whips in a good ball to the far post, it drops over me and falls to Greg Vanney who touches it back to John O'Brien. John shoots, it deflects, and we get another corner kick.
This time Landon plays the ball directly to John. John takes a touch inside the box and winds up to shoot. As this transpires, I wrap my run to the back post. John fires a good shot, the Panamanian goalkeeper gets a finger to it and the ball is heading in my direction, screaming to hit the back of the net, and I lunge to make contact. As I do I can see it now:
The crowd going crazy.
My teammates coming to hug me.
Interviews after the game.
Champagne poured on my head.
But as the ball defies my best intentions and rainbows over the crossbar, all I see is a certain high-ranking official on the U.S. Soccer food chain saying:
"How the **** did Jimmy Conrad miss the ********* goal from one ******** foot away?"
And don't you forget it.
Jimmy Conrad is a defender for the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.