The battle between club and country has been going on nearly as long as professional soccer has been played. For players in Major League Soccer, that conflict will double in intensity over the final months of the 2005 season.
Having already achieved qualification for Germany 2006, the USA has a pair of matches left in the final round of CONCACAF play -- and national team manager Bruce Arena will be using those games (plus friendlies) as auditions of a sort for the 23 places available for next summer. But those games also come in the heart of the run to the MLS Cup.
The Kansas City Wizards have plenty of players who could be called on to prove their worth. Forward Josh Wolff, midfielders Kerry Zavagnin, Diego Gutierrez and Davy Arnaud, along with defenders Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad are Wizards who have received a call from Arena this season. In addition, midfielder Chris Klein was recently listed as an alternate selection.
The internal battle for club or country brings different reactions from different players. For Wolff, for example, his focus is all on the Wizards and their endeavor to earn the highest playoff seed they can despite a possible call-up for the qualifiers at Costa Rica (Oct. 8) and against Panama at home (Oct. 12).
"The prospects of being on the national team are what they are. There are a number of guys; I'm obviously someone that has been in on a consistent basis like the next group of guys - the Twellmans and those who are competing. That's the way it should be," Wolff said. "It's going to be tight, but you've got to plug away -- you've got to do well with your club team."
Does Wolff anticipate a call into the U.S. camp?
"Probably not on the fact that they've already qualified, and [Arena] is still going to look at guys who haven't played much," Wolff said. "I think we're at a point in the season where if I get called in I probably wouldn't go anyway. We're fighting for spots here, and I've been in 40-something times -- he knows who I am and what I do."
Also adding to the factor is whether players are carrying injuries, or are especially concerned about their club team's standing and their status within. In what was surely a tough decision, Zavagnin and Wolff did not report to Arena's pre-Mexico camp due to nagging injuries.
Wolff's right rib intercostals strain kept him out of the U.S. camp, but has not kept him out of Wizards action.
"It's still a bit of a problem, but you've have to get on with it and not use it as a crutch. It's not ideal," said the 28-year-old, who has scored eight goals in 37 appearances with the national team. "But these [Wizards' matches] are important games, so I'm not going to sit them out."
Both relatively fresh to the national team scene, Garcia (six caps) and Conrad (seven caps) might be compelled to accept any invitation that comes.
Garcia told The Kansas City Star he feels there is a "good chance" he will be called in. He was brought in for the Guatemala game, the second of the last international fixture period after the USA defeated Mexico, though he did not play. Conrad is not sure of either a call or his reception to one as the MLS playoff hunt intensifies.
"My goal each time I go into camp is to get called into the next one. If they feel like my seven games this year have been enough, then maybe they give some other guys a chance," said the 27-year-old center back, who played in the scoreless draw in Guatemala four days after the USA booked their ticket to Germany with a 2-0 victory against arch-rival Mexico.
"If I get the opportunity; I'll go to make the most of it. If they want to look at some other guys, I'll be ready the next time they call me in," he said.
"I think Bruce is going to take [the fact that the U.S. has already qualified and the MLS playoff push] into consideration. He'll probably sit down and talk to most of the coaches and probably put together a team of guys that the coaches feel comfortable letting go," said Conrad. "I'd be surprised if Bruce took more than one or two guys per team. It's going to be interesting. For me, I'll have to sit down and talk to coach."
Whatever the result, a national team camp experience can be good for all concerned because of what a player brings back to his club.
"Everybody [at the U.S. camp] is trying to prove that he belongs. Some guys that could feel comfortable there don't, and they go out there and they're working hard and doing the little things that are going to make the team better and make themselves better," Conrad said.
"I always tell the young guys when I come back to K.C. that I wish they could have one training to see the level of intensity -- to see the speed of the game and the expectations and to have an appreciation for that level of play. Once you've been exposed to it, when you come back you see the game in a different light and it makes you a better player. And you hope that you can pass on that experience and bring everybody else to that level as well."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.