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Jul 24, 2006

World Cup fragments

Enthusiasts,

I know I promised to write every few days from my perch high above the streets of Hamburg, offering a glimpse of the madness that surrounds a World Cup, and I had every intention of sticking to my word, but then June 12 (our first game against the Czech Republic) happened, and things got a bit more serious.

So serious in fact, that I could no longer write with the wistful joy that usually accompanies any piece I present to the public. I mean, how could I? What was there to say? The game became a much-publicized, well-documented 3-0 loss to the Czechs and the only detail that hadn't been covered was a full-blown apology from the team (which I put together in case some emergency damage control was needed):

Dear Faithful Followers,

We, the United States World Cup soccer team, acknowledge that we underperformed in the first 90 minutes of our 2006 World Cup campaign and we hope to totally redeem ourselves when we take the field against the Italians.

Please don't hate us.

Sincerely,

The Team

----

Unfortunately, my attempts to get the apology through the proper media channels were met with tepid shrugs and head shakes, so I held off from the normal attention-getting antics (naked jumping jacks, for example) and suppressed my instincts. Bad move. The result: A hazy recollection of what transpired from that point on saved only by fragments of my already selective memory.

Fragments

I sit, arms folded, staring at the computer screen and wish that I was OK with writing a diary (the quintessential method to rehash the past) because it is so easy. Type a date, write a few lines, blur the details, move on to the following day, repeat until word count is met, and send it in to the editors. Sounds great, right? But I can't do it. Something inside of me wants to deliver more: More portions of the process, more musings and contemplation, but not more of the same. And from this refusal, this absolute stubborn refusal to take the simple, uncomplicated, painless route, a blank page and blinking cursor await my direction.

Where am I?

The whistle blows and Eddie Pope is shown his second yellow card of the night. I slouch back in my chair on the team bench and stare off into the section of the stadium in Kaiserslautern where the majority of American fans stand and I feel their disappointment. In a five-minute span we went from having a man advantage against the Italians to being a man down. I turn to one of my teammates and say,

"What a bunch of bull----"

"Jimmy, what are you doing?" The head coach interrupts. "Start warming up."

"Oh yeah, of course," I nod and jump out of my seat.

I hurry over to the designated area and launch into a full sprint. Holy crap, I might get to play ... in a World Cup. Holy crap. Should I stretch? Eddie Pope was marking who? Don't pass it to the other team. That other team is Italy by the way -- no big deal. It's not like they are supposed to win it all or anything. I probably shouldn't have eaten that Gatorade energy bar at halftime. How was I supposed to know Eddie would get ejected two minutes into the second half? Let's be honest: the chocolate chip ones are really good. Focus. Deep breath. Focus. Are my shoes tied?

"Jim," our assistant coach calls, "you're going in."

"Let's do it," I reply.

"Here are your responsibilities on set pieces," he says while pointing at his clipboard.

I shed my yellow, FIFA-sponsored "that guy is a RESERVE" bib and put on my jersey. The head coach sidles up to me as I put on my shin guards and fills me in on the necessary details.

"OK, you're going in for Bobby," he starts off, "we'll keep a back four, pull Landon back wide into the midfield with Claudio central, and leave Brian up top."

"So a 4-3-1?" I summarize.

"Yes," he says, "Good luck!"

I grab the substitution card from his hand and proceed to the fourth official, who gladly accepts my information. The official punches the numbers of the transaction into his electronic board and I tuck my shirt in. The play on the field is still ongoing and I can't enter until there is a stoppage in the game, so I watch and wait and think. ... Now this is what it is all about -- a chance to show everyone who said that I couldn't that I can, a chance to prove to myself that I can play with and against the best in the world. Hmm, I wonder what my posse is doing right now? Focus, focus!

The ball is dead after a foul near the sideline, Italy has been awarded with a free kick, and the center referee signals for the player change. The chance I've always worked for is here, now. Don't $@&# it up.

How did this happen?

I'm at the end of the hall, the last room on the right, and my bags are packed. It's been a full day since I walked off the field against Ghana, a devastating 2-1 loss, and I can't believe it's over. All of the effort, work, and concentration given to this affair by the players, coaches, medical staff, trainers, Pam Perkins, press officers, equipment managers, higher-ups, and fans over a four-year period is gone. Done. Finished. Only 11 days earlier we were starting the Cup with high hopes, a desire to prove what we could do, and a good game plan. Eleven days ago.

I prop the door open with one of my overfilled duffels and peer around the corner. The energy that used to fill this hallway has now departed and I feel empty. I walk toward the training room hoping to hear a familiar voice -- any voice -- and I pass little reminders of the past couple of weeks: funny pictures on doors, felt pen marks on the wall, and trash littering the carpet. It's like a college dorm on a Sunday morning.

I continue on to the door of the training room and it's locked. The party is over. That was that.

"Snap out of it!"

"Snap out of what?" I demand.

"This funk you're in," the voice maintains on the phone. "I think you have some kind of post-World Cup stress disorder. You need to go to therapy."

"Therapy?"

"You just came off an intense emotional experience where you accomplished everything you ever set out to do as a soccer player. You did it. Congratulations," states the voice. "But now what?"

"I want to help lead my club team to the promised land," I say matter-of-factly.

"Getting a red card, scoring an own goal, and slide-tackling when you should stay on your feet isn't the best way to lead, in my opinion," the voice insists. "I think you need to talk to someone."

"Such as?" I inquire.

"Someone older, wiser," recommends the voice. "I'm hoping it proves cathartic."

The conversation continues in this vein (conjecture and pouting) for several more minutes and I already have an idea of whom I want to talk to. So I state the obligatory goodbyes, hang up the phone, and dial a sweet, little old lady whom I affectionately refer to as ...

"Grandma!" I say with youthful grandson exuberance, "It's me, Jim."

"Huh?" she creaks. "Who is this?"

"It's your oldest, most devilishly handsome grandson," I declare. "It's Jimmy."

"Jim? Jim, Jim," she ponders, "OH, JIMMY! How are you my dear boy?"

"Well," I begin, "I could be better."

"Bed wetter?" She asks. "Still? I thought we cured you of that before you left for college."

"Grandma," I interject, "can you put the phone to your good ear?"

"Beer? That's probably what led to your bed wetting."

I put the phone down on the desk, swivel my chair around, and throw up my arms. I let her talk to the top of the desk for a minute or two while I re-relax my overwrought brain cells. At midstory, I jump back into the conversation and add, "Uh-huh, yeah, I don't think it's right that other people let their dogs use your lawn as a toilet, either."

She presses on, offering different slices of her everyday existence (cat grooming, neighbor gossip, mailman tardiness) and I follow with proper grandson etiquette ("That's great." ... "Really?" ... "Wow." ... or "That's too bad.") until she says, "So what is the purpose of your call?"

"People think I'm not being myself," I offer cautiously. "I think they think I'm crazy."

"Lazy? You? I find that hard to believe," she scoffs. "I doubt you would be where you are, which is leading quite the charmed life, without some form of diligent work."

"I guess."

"Jimmy, when you were younger, there was a Latin phrase you used to tell me that you thought helped keep you pointing in the right direction. Do you remember it?" she inquires. "I think it was something like, 'For aspirin and Castro.'"

"Per aspera ad astra," I correct.

"That's what I said," she states. "What does it mean again?"

"Through hardship to the stars."

"You would do well to remember this once more especially in the wake of your current losing streak," she avows. "For perspective."

"Perspective," I say in agreement.

"Yes," she maintains. "No more standing still. You need to keep moving."

"But where do I go?" I ask.

She pauses (which I safely assume means she's switching to her good ear) and says, "In the right direction."

Per aspera ad astra!

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.