Traveling outside of the United States to finalize their preparations for the Major League Soccer season opener has become an annual ritual for the Kansas City Wizards.
This year the club chose Germany, site of FIFA World Cup 2006. They arrived Friday in Germany for the first of 12 days of training and exhibition games as part of their preparation for the April 1 season opener against Columbus.
The Wizards have traveled to Portugal, South Africa, Costa Rica and Bolivia on other preseason trips. The German base for the Wizards is in Furth, a city in southeast Germany near the border with the Czech Republic.
But what really helps the Wizards make this trip effective preparation for the MLS season is that all of the players are together for the first time since preseason training began on Feb. 1. Jimmy Conrad, Eddie Johnson, Josh Wolff and Kerry Zavagnin are free of U.S. national team duty, at least for now.
"It will be a good trip for all the starting guys to finally come together," Wizards defender Jose Burciaga Jr. said.
When the Wizards leave Germany on March 21, they might leave any one or all four of those players behind for the U.S. game against Germany on March 22 in Dortmund.
The Wizards will play three exhibition games in Germany against a variety of competition. On Tuesday, the Wizards play Erzgebirge Aue from the Bundesliga 2., Germany's second division. On Wednesday, they play Regensberg, which plays in the Regionalliga, Germany's third division.
The final exhibition is March 19 against 1. FC Nurnberg of the Bundesliga, Germany's top division. Nurnberg is fighting to stave off relegation to the second division, although it is unlikely that the Wizards will face any of Nurnberg's first 11. Nurnberg has a league game scheduled the day before against Werder Bremen.
Playing well is at least as important as getting some good results.
"It's important to have good performances. Obviously you always want a result," Wizards coach Bob Gansler said, "especially in terms of getting to know each other, making things automatic offensively and defensively."
Playing teams from each division gives the Wizards a chance to rehearse different parts of their game, Gansler said.
"If they are weaker and you are going to have more of the ball, you can rehearse your attacking stuff," Gansler said. "(Nurnberg) is in the bottom part of the Bundesliga but they have done well since they changed coach eight games ago. So maybe it's going to be more about defending.
"Regardless, we are going to have a chance to rehearse stuff for the season with the folks that are likely going to be out there most of the time. That's what we are looking for. It's time to get ready for April 1."
Wizards assistant coach Brian Bliss led the club's effort to put the trip together by using contacts he has in Germany. Bliss played in Germany for FC Chemnitz shortly for the final six months of the two-year period following reunification of the two Germanys but before the East German league merged with the Bundesliga. Bliss also played for five seasons (1992-96) with FC Carl Zeiss Jena.
Bliss played for two years at Carl Zeiss Jena for coach Hans Meyer, who was recently hired by Nurnberg to try and keep that club from relegation.
Bliss tried to put the trip togetherwith cost in mind. Working with Martie Harter, executive assistant to general manager Curt Johnson, Bliss worked out the flight and hotel part of the trip. Using his contacts in Germany, including Meyer, Bliss arranged three exhibition games.
"We've working on since late December, early January," Bliss said. "Usually you think, 'Pick up a phone and get it done.' But we've got a budget to work within and we need to have a price that's within our budget. So it's not easy to come up with the details of the trip."
So while the Wizards may not be staying at a five-star hotel, they will not be staying in a youth hostel, either.
The trip is a homecoming, of sorts, for Wizards coach Bob Gansler who lived in Germany until he was 10 years old. His family then emigrated to the United States.
Gansler said he kept up with the Bundesliga every day and has a subscription to 'kicker,' the leading soccer magazine in Germany. The trip, though, is not as much personal as business for Gansler.
"I've been in America for 50 years," Gansler said. "The mother tongue is in German, but I trust I speak English better than I speak German, although I've kept up the German pretty well."
Robert Whitman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.