For Kansas City Wizards center back Jimmy Conrad, traveling with the U.S. national team to Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, for the recent World Cup qualifier was a good start.
Before Bruce Arena and his staff made the final selections of who would represent the USA in the first qualifier in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, first-time camper Conrad said, short of making the game-day roster, he had the goal of just making it into the camp that would follow.
Conrad did one better: Although he wasn't an eligible player, he was selected to make the trip. That was sign enough for the six-year MLS veteran.
"The coaches wanted to take me so I could experience how it is for the future. They weren't going to fly in the Europeans and not put them on the roster. Once I saw [defenders Gregg] Berhalter and [Cory] Gibbs [were on the roster], I knew," Conrad said. "I'm realistic and am taking it one step at a time. It was my first camp and being able to travel was a big accomplishment for me."
The game-day atmosphere, heightened by Trinidad and Tobago's Carnival celebration, was right down Conrad's alley. While not an outrageous partymonger, Conrad knows a good time when he sees it.
"It was pretty intense. I know it's a big deal for the country, and everybody gets involved. I don't think I saw one person who wasn't involved in Carnival on some level. You could just see it in their eyes that they were going to party," he said. "It's all in good fun. I thought everything was fine -- I didn't feel like there were any threatening situations. Everybody was in a good mood and ready to see a good soccer game."
Following the U.S.'s 2-1 victory on the strength of goals by FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson and former MLS product Eddie Lewis and a capable defense, Conrad gained some acknowledgement from the coaches.
"They said they'll be in touch. We've got a camp coming up February 27th, and there are two friendlies that will be played March 9th versus Colombia at The Home Depot Center and March 19th versus Honduras in Albuquerque, New Mexico," he said.
The only stumbling block to Conrad's participation in the camp (and likely that of teammate Josh Wolff, who was on the bench for the qualifier) is a reward earned partly due to Conrad's exemplary performance for the Wizards last season where he took on a larger leadership role.
"The D.C. [United] guys and the K.C. guys, we have CONCACAF [Champions Cup competition which begins March 9 and continues March 16], so the situation will be a little different for us. I don't know exactly what's going to go down on that end. It's just finding common ground now between club and country," said Conrad.
"I feel pretty confident about being called in again. The only gray area is the CONCACAF stuff," he added. "If it doesn't happen, I feel pretty good, from what I've been told, that I'll get a shot at some point."
No matter the outcome, Conrad has learned much.
"I learned a lot, subtle things. When you're out there every day playing against the top guys in our league and the European guys, you've got to make your decisions early, the pace is very fast," he said. "If your mind's not ready, your body isn't going to react fast enough. It's a challenge day in and day out -- I really cherish the opportunity to succeed at that level."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.