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Thursday, November 3, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: November 16, 4:45 PM UK
In the doldrums

Jimmy Conrad

Speculators,

I am at a loss.

For the first time in my brief writing career, I don't know what to say. The words aren't escaping my lips with the usual pizzazz that I'm accustomed to. The question and answer routine for teammates, panel discussions with noted MLS dignitaries, and imaginary conversations with myself aren't registering much of an accelerated heartbeat.

I think I'm depressed.

Wait, no, scratch that.

I know I'm depressed.

Not making the playoffs, when you know and I know that my Kansas City Wizards are a good team with all the components of a champion, can do that to a person. With eight games left in the season not only did we have 41 points but we also had the confidence and momentum of a team that just recorded the best August in club history culminated by a 3-0 thrashing of Eastern Conference Finalists, the Chicago Fire. So how did we finish with only 45 points? What happened? Let's take a look.

Stories from Before, During, and After

--Before--

I wake up from a beam of light breaking through the space between the hotel curtains. As I adjust my eyes, I roll onto my side and glimpse the dull red glow that emanates beneath the lamp. The alarm should go off in a couple of minutes so I fall back into a bliss of pillows and blankets and enjoy my brief moment of not having to move.

"So what's the plan today?" I think to myself.

The plan (in no particular order):

1. Eat a good breakfast.

2. Read the paper.

3. Stretch well.

4. Uh...

5. ...turn that damn alarm off.

I hit the snooze button but it's too late, my cocoon of contentment is ruined. I peel off the layers, embrace the chill that hits my skin, and stagger over to the curtain. I tug it from left to right and discover that though there was enough light to interrupt my peaceful slumber, today is as cloudy and gray as the day before and most likely the day before that. Portland is a glorious city.

It's June 28th, my third day of camp with the U.S. national team as we prepare for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup. Many players are still making their way to join us from their clubs across Europe and the States and my roommate Brad Davis is one of them. So for the previous couple of days and at the moment, the room is mine. I claimed the bed I wanted (I prefer to be closer to the window), I am in charge of the remote control and watch whatever I want (The Daily Show, ThunderCats, E! True Hollywood Story of Hulk Hogan, Nip/Tuck, Family Feud), whenever I want (early, late, or all night), and at whatever volume (muted or super loud).

"Hello," I answer as my phone comes to life.

"How's it going?" My wife asks.

"Huh? What? Say that again I didn't hear you," I reply.

"What are you doing?" She repeats.

"Hang on, I'm watching Teletubbies, let me turn down the sound."

After I exchange morning phone pleasantries with the missus, I open the door to the hall just wide enough to snag the morning paper at my feet, and shuffle towards the bathroom. I like the bathroom for a variety of reasons, but the one I truly appreciate is that, in solitude, the door can remain open -- in other words, I can sit on the toilet, brush my teeth, and do the crossword all while checking myself out in the mirrored closet door across the hall. Ahh, another perk of being roommate-less.

Anyhow, I finish my multi-task of 'frushing', saunter over to my bag of clothes, and don the appropriate team apparel. The door closes swiftly behind me and I make for the elevator. The hallway is littered with daily newspapers and since every door I pass still has one, I put together the safe assumption that I am the first one up.

Crossword completed, I thumb through the rest of my USA Today as the elevator descends to the lobby. The lobby offers its normal warmth and welcomes me with a few smiles and 'good mornings.' I cross over the marble floor and walk towards the hotel restaurant. Before I hit the entrance I pass along a panel of windows that gives me a view of who is eating, what they're eating, and if they're enjoying it. I scan the sea of tables and chairs and don't recognize a soul, save one. I slow my pace and ready myself for my first social (non-soccer) conversation with the head coach.

The head coach is sitting at a table for two and is in the middle of breakfast. I'm not really sure what is appropriate in these circumstances so I sidle up at the table next to his. I sit diagonally from his position and wonder again if this is proper conversation/eating-together etiquette. He seems unaware of my dilemma and glances at his newspaper. I feign interest in my menu and mount a get-to-know-you chat attack. We swap banter about our families, our wives, what's on the front page of the paper, and how his breakfast tastes, but it inevitably leads to soccer.

"I think the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is going to come down to your team and the MetroStars," predicts the head coach.

"Is that so?" I smile confidently.

"Yeah&"

"We'll see," I reply, "but I would be hard pressed to believe that we will be scrapping for the last playoff spot when we won the Open Cup and made it to the final last year and we're essentially returning the same team as before."

"& I think the MetroStars will pull it out."

No chance, I thought. Won't happen.

--------------------------------------------------------

--During--

The final whistle blows signaling an end to the game and the continuation of our win streak: Four regular season wins in a row. I bask in the lights of Arrowhead Stadium and trade hugs with a few players from the opposing team. We are on a roll.

I start making my way to the locker room, pausing to show my appreciation to the loyal Wizards fans in the Cauldron and at the top of the ramp that leads under the stadium, I meet a few members of the game day operations crew who offer high-fives and congratulatory words. The locker room overflows with positive energy and a sense of team satisfaction. I sit down in front of my locker, shed my jersey, take off my cleats, sip some Gatorade, and enjoy the moment. I turn to my teammate next to me and say:

"Listen. It's August 19th, we're three points out of first place, and we have five of the next eight games at home."

"We have put ourselves in a nice position," my teammate responds.

"Not only have we positioned ourselves well, we are 24 games into the season with 41 points," I beam, "Last year we were the best team in our conference with 48 points out of 30 games."

"Your point being?" My teammate jests, needling me.

"My point is that we're going to crush our point total from last year!"

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--After--

I can't believe this is happening. We didn't win any of our last eight games and now our season is in the hands of Chivas USA. The same Chivas USA I have been bad-mouthing the whole season. If my new favorite team beats the MetroStars then we go on to the playoffs and if they lose, the MetroStars go to the playoffs and Nostradamus' (the head coach from before) prophecy is fulfilled.

I can't watch. But I do. And I shouldn't have.

It's over.

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Epilogue

I wish I knew the answer that solves why we faded down the stretch. But searching for it only leads to more questions: Was I superstitious enough? Did I not shave the hair on my head to the right length? Bad tactics? Bad luck? Not making the right plays at the right time? Is David Beckham's jersey cursed? Are football lines on the field too big a distraction? Doesn't setting a team record for ties in a season mean anything? What did we do last year that we didn't do this year? Why couldn't Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA be in our conference? Did losing to an A-League team in the Open Cup kill our mojo? Should we have asked MoJo (Mo Johnston) to come back and play for us as opposed to coaching the MetroStars into the playoffs? Could it be because we have been on the cusp of moving to San Antulsatoronto for the last ten months? What happened? Why?

I don't know the reasons why and I don't think I ever will.

(This concludes an article that took me two weeks to finish because I wasn't exactly exuding optimism and every time I sat down to write the only adjectives I could find were choice expletives. So for your patience and understanding I give you something of substance, a prediction: Colorado vs. New England in MLS Cup. Colorado wins their third straight game in penalty kicks and makes MLS re-think the whole playoff format. Thanks for your time you've been great.)

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.




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