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May 30, 2006

The waiting game

People:

It's mid-afternoon in Cary, N.C. I'm on top of the hotel bedspread and the sunbeams refracting through the window illuminate my feet. I stretch my legs out, fold my arms behind my head, and look at the television. The channels flip by as my roommate, Josh Wolff, looks at our cable menu:

HBO for "Taxi Cab Confessions" -- check,

ESPN2 for MLS Soccer Saturdays, Brandi Chastain, and the Champions League final -- check,

Fox for Jack Bauer -- check,

TNT because they know drama -- check.

I shrug, satisfied with our pixilated assortment, take a deep breath and say, "Do we really have fitness tomorrow?"

"Well," Josh starts up, "last time around they hammered us -- but we were in Cary much, much earlier than we are now."

"That's ... so reassuring," I say.

"And," Josh continues, "we have our first friendly in 10 days, half of the team just finished a 10-month season, the other half is six games into the MLS season, so maybe it won't be too bad."

The Next Day

It's bad. I'm one lap into our fitness test (run as far as you can in six minutes) and I might have come out of the gate a bit too fast, as in a 4-minute-and-20-second-mile-pace too fast. The legs, though still doing their job, are sending mixed messages to my brain:

Left quadriceps: We can do it.

Right quadriceps: No we can't.

Right hamstring: Get it together you two.

Left hamstring: I'm feeling a little tight.

Left calf: It's always the same with you hamstrings, "Massage this and stretch that."

Right hamstring: Three minutes to go!

Left hamstring: Need. Oxygen.

Right calf: We haven't run like this since January.

Left quadriceps: It'll be over before we know it. Let's sing a song to get us through the last two minutes -- something that will pump up the rest of the body.

Right quadriceps: How about "Live and Let Die?"

Left calf: That's the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it, uh huh, uh huh.

Right hamstring: I love you, you love me. We're a happy family.

Abdominal area: No. Please, not that one.

The race ends and I finish a little over four and a quarter laps around a track, about 30 meters behind the first group and good for sixth place.

Left calf: Not our best showing.

Right hamstring: We had surgery a while back and probably lost some of that kind of fitness.

Left hamstring: Maybe we could have finished stronger if the brain didn't try to channel Steve Prefontaine at the start.

For the next few minutes my leg muscles get to rest, so before they start arguing again, let me explain why I'm in Cary, N.C.

May 2, 2006

It's late afternoon in Kansas City, and today is the big day. Bruce Arena, head coach of the U.S. national team, is going to name his 23-man roster for the 2006 World Cup live on "SportsCenter" in an hour and I eagerly await his decision. I pace from the office (where my computer idles) to the kitchen (where I snack through my nervous energy) and back to the office. My phone isn't ringing, no new e-mails have arrived, and I clearly can't sit still. So I do what anybody else would do in my situation: I surf the Internet.

At first, I went for the peripheral, which consists of looking for random stuff on eBay, shaking my head at how bad my fantasy baseball team is, and Google-ing my image to see how dashing I appear in action photos. But my curiosity cannot be contained and I peek at the pertinent: ussoccer.com, MLSnet.com, socceramerica.com, and every other site that has an opinion about who should be on the World Cup roster. As I hem, haw, sigh, and scan the points of view, only one thought comes to my mind, "Who criticizes the critics?"

My eyes lose focus and deep thought ensues. I envision a ratings system for the know-it-alls, from 1 to 5:

1 = the Clean Sheet on MLSnet.com

2 = utter crap

3 = speakeasy, boiler plate specials (typically ghost written, cliché-riddled, or pushing an agenda)

4 = articulate and topical

5 = genius, pure genius (where I like to reside)

Out of the 18 published pundits I examine, only one has me included on their World Cup roster. One! His name: Marcelo Balboa, a definite 5, and someone I now consider as my own personal Jesus.

(Let's pause here to view a picture of Marcelo Balboa.)

I don't find any more 5s, but as I continue to slot the soccer "experts" into my neatly defined categories, I come to a certain realization about my ratings system: Is it even possible to be objective about subjectivity? Who am I to say anything about anything at all? What do I know?

Before I can resolve this metaphysical debate, a flashing light from the monitor catches my eye. It's a new instant message from Landon Donovan. It reads:

"Cimmy Jonrad, I've got great news."

"What's that?" I quickly type, thinking that someone leaked the roster to the Golden Boy.

"I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico."

"What a &%*$^%& $#@*&# &*^%$% %$#@ you are," I politely reply.

"I couldn't pass it up. That was way too easy."

"Must be nice," I scoff.

A long hour later

It's done. I make my hands into fists and raise my arms above my head. I'm on the team. The incoming barrage of support comes from every communication outlet (phone messages, texts, e-mails and people knocking on the door), and I'm overwhelmed. I try to return a few calls and act demure about the news but it is hard to contain my excitement. I'm going to Cary, N.C., to prepare for the World Cup. Me.

I break out the Yellow Pages to get a number for a local restaurant and celebrate the news with my beautiful wife. I find the necessary digits, grab my home phone, and as I'm about to hit the talk button to dial, it rings.

"Hello?" I offer.

"Is this Jimmy Conrad?" The voice asks on the other end.

"Perhaps," I wince with the knowledge that making a reservation for dinner will have to wait.

"Well, I didn't expect you to answer, but I have a question or two regarding the World Cup roster," he submits.

"I haven't had time to prepare a clever statement to the standard inquiries," I reply.

"Then I caught you at the perfect time," he counters.

Like two cowboys in the Old West, it's a duel.

"Shoot," I say with a smirk.

Without missing a beat, he questions, "Why should people want to watch this team during the U.S.'s run in the World Cup?"

A bead of sweat trickles down my spine as I think of an appropriate response to his interrogation.

"Well, I am devilishly handsome," I say.

Good one, I think to myself. Keep it loose.

"Uh, do you think you could expand your answer?" he asks.

"I only shave once a week, I have some choice clothes from the thrift store I prefer to wear, and I've tried to make the disheveled look an art form. Why that makes me so handsome, I'm not sure."

"I meant about the team," he interrupts.

"What team?" I state confidently, trying to deflect the obvious.

"The same team you are going to join in Cary, N.C., next week!" he bellows, clearly agitated. "That's what team."

"Listen," I assert, "I think I'll have an answer for you once I can fully appreciate the magnitude of it all. Try me after the first training."

Cary, N.C.

Right quadriceps: Is training over?

Left calf: We haven't moved in awhile, if that gives you any indication.

Right calf: Maybe we're dead.

Left hamstring: If we are, then my massage is out tonight.

Left calf: @*&^%$#* hamstrings.

I pick up my cleats, put them in my shoe bag, and rise off the ground. I take two steps toward the team vans that lie still in the parking lot and glimpse at the media frenzy blocking our escape. I remain steadfast to my quickest point-A-to-point-B route, and I'm almost home free … until I hear a familiar voice.

"So," inquires my previously faceless foe, "why should people watch?"

I put my hand on my chin making him believe I'm thinking long and hard, but I know what I want to say. I want to yell it from the top of a mountain.

"Because it's on," I smile. "The quest for the Cup is on."

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.