Jimmy Conrad

Wizards seek U.S. qualifier spots

Of the four Kansas City Wizards brought into the U.S. national team camp in Carson, Calif., this week, two -- Jimmy Conrad and Diego Gutierrez -- represent nearly opposite ends of the spectrum of the players training for the opening of the final phase of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

Conrad and Gutierrez are there with defender Nick Garcia and forward Josh Wolff. But center back Conrad, in his prime at age 27, is looking to put a strong foot forward during his first camp under the discriminating eye of Bruce Arena and his staff, while the versatile Gutierrez must capitalize on any opportunity to impress in his last World Cup go-round as he will be 34 when June 2006 arrives.

"It's all about timing. I'm glad to reach a level where I'm considered again," said Gutierrez who arguably had his finest MLS season in 2004. "And once you're here, you have to take advantage of the opportunity."

Gutierrez earned his first cap in December 2001 in the run-up to Korea and Japan 2002. The Colombian-born midfielder suffered a knee injury shortly after that match and he was unable to retain his spot. He hopes to avoid any derailments this time, and so far, so good.

"Things have gone pretty good. It's been about trying to get re-acquainted with fitness and the level of soccer that is going to be good enough to play in a World Cup qualifier. For the most part I feel pretty well, as well as the other guys around me," he said.

While he established his mark with last year's Western Conference champions as a driving midfielder, with the national team Gutierrez has been competing for a spot where depth is needed.

"I've been playing as a left back. [But] there have also been plenty of exercises where I've played in the midfield," Gutierrez said. "Right now I think he's [national team manager Bruce Arena] got me in mind as a left back."

The competition will be tight as witnessed not only by the quality of players in camp, but the age.

"Guys within this group are getting younger. The last time I was around, we really didn't have that many young players. We had the Ben Olsen's and the Josh Wolff's, the guys that were 22, 23, 24," said Gutierrez. "Nowadays we've got Eddie Johnson, Mike Magee, Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, guys that are 20, not even 21 years old. I think that's a very good sign that the league is contributing to the national team, producing players of that caliber."

Gutierrez and Conrad have only one more chance to show their mettle. After a scrimmage last Friday against Hammarby of Sweden, and a Tuesday morning scrimmage against UCLA, an inter-squad match will take place Thursday before final selection is made for the 10 domestic players who will join the European-based players in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, for the Feb. 9 contest.

In the first scrimmage, debutante Conrad made a statement by scoring early in the match.

"It [the goal on Friday] was icing on the cake," said the California native. "I'm concerned about playing good defense, communicating, organizing, things like that, and to be able to put a goal away was an exclamation point.

"It was a free-kick probably 10 yards off the corner of the top of the box. [Clint] Mathis hit a good ball in near post, and I just came crashing in from back post. It went in. It was like, 'Wow, that was nice. How about that?'"

Just as quick and welcome was Conrad's call into camp.

"I was just actually gearing up for the Wizards [preseason camp], and then ... probably a week and a half ago, I got the call. It couldn't have worked out for me better fitness-wise because I felt pretty good at the moment," said the 6-foot-2 backline leader.

As Gutierrez, Conrad has also noticed the high intensity and competitive nature of training, mostly the quick decision-making required.

"The biggest thing that stands out is the speed of play. Everybody is here to impress, and they come out 100 miles per hour," he said. "Everybody wants to catch Bruce Arena's eye, so the level never drops."

It's clear that all concerned desire a spot on the roster for next Wednesday's qualifier. For Conrad, a MLS Best XI selection in 2004, the steps are one at a time.

"It's the goal to make the roster, but you've got to be realistic. This is my first camp, and they're only taking the top 10 guys of the 28 that are here. Obviously, I'd love to be there," he said. "[I also have the goal] of getting into the next camp and going from there. I want to make the decision as tough as possible on Bruce, and that type of competition will just make us better as a team come qualifying."

Soon Gutierrez and Conrad will discover where they stand on the national team's depth chart. Whether the news is kind or not, expect to see both back quickly into the national team mix.

"I think you could easily pick two very good teams here," said Gutierrez. "It will depend on what European players are available, who is healthy, and who is being productive."

Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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