Heath Pearce answered the phone on the first ring.
He knew he had an interview set up for exactly 6 p.m. (Central European Time), and it most likely would be the reporter on the other end of the line.
But it also could have been the manager of his Danish club — FC Nordsjaelland — with the news he had been sold to another team, or a call from the U.S. Men's National Team telling him to be ready to play in next Wednesday's match against Mexico.
Or maybe it was just a friend wanting to grab an early dinner on a Tuesday evening in Copenhagen.
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In any case, Pearce never is far from a phone and never quick to unpack his bags. The life of a professional soccer player in Europe is transient, and it's the journey Pearce has embraced as his route to what remains his ultimate goal: representing the U.S. in the World Cup.
When the former Johansen High and Modesto Christian standout was sent back to Denmark last week from the U.S. National Team camp in Carson, it wasn't a matter of Pearce being cut, as reported. The defender was training with the U.S. team on leave from his Danish club, which is on its annual four-month winter hiatus.
"It was the idea all along to come back at this time," said Pearce, 22, who notched an assist for his first international point in a 3-1 U.S. victory over Denmark on Jan. 20. "My club released me to play during this off period, and would release me again on 48 hours' notice to play for the national team."
Pearce's return to Europe doesn't affect his presence in the U.S. player pool, from which an ever-changing group of players is plucked for each game. He could be called back to play in the Mexico match or any of the others on the schedule.
For now, however, he's back training with his club. Nordsjaelland and the rest of the Superliga will resume play March 11, but Pearce isn't certain he'll still be in Denmark for the kickoff.
He's hearing there may be interest in his services from teams in the German, Dutch and French leagues, all of which are steps higher on soccer's ladder than the Danish league.
"There's a decent chance that could happen, but I try not to think about it too much," Pearce said. "I feel I'm ready to take the next step and move to a higher level, but if the offer isn't there I'm patient enough to stay here and give everything I have for my team."
Such movement always has been part of Pearce's plan.
Playing in Denmark has allowed Pearce to establish a presence in the European soccer world. Each upward movement would result in greater international exposure and the chance to improve by playing against the world's best, which in turn would make him a more attractive choice for the U.S. National Team.
Pearce was sporting the red, white and blue last year at this time — every game bringing him one day closer to earning a spot on the World Cup team. With the next Cup 3½ years away, Pearce knows he can draw on those experiences to help his chances in 2010.
"To be part of such an atmosphere so close to the World Cup was so beneficial," Pearce said. "I saw the media frenzy and saw the playing level and the ability. I got to see the mix of the real game and the cutthroat process of selection.
"It helps me to have gone through that, because now I know how the process will be in the next few years."
There also is the chance that the entire U.S. soccer landscape will have changed by 2010, thanks to the $250 million contract signed by David Beckham with MLS and the L.A. Galaxy.
If the marketing move proves worthy of the quarter-billion price tag, soccer will be a hot sport in this country. Fans would begin to clamor for the U.S. players to come home, and Pearce could be in position to reap the financial benefits of that situation.
But if Beckham can't save soccer in the U.S., the sport once again will be relegated to the back pages of the sports section — a once-every-four-years novelty.
"To sign a contract worth a quarter billion is crazy," Pearce said. "That's nothing against Beckham, because everybody else could only hope for that. There is some resentment from guys already in MLS. They don't understand where the money is coming from when they've fought for and been turned down for an extra one or two thousand per year.
"The MLS game is not comparable to the bigger European leagues. But if everything happens as planned, I would think at some point they would continue to attract players and not turn it into a retirement league. As successful as it could be, it also could backfire."
Make no mistake. Pearce would love to be able to play high-level soccer in his home country, which is why his ultimate goal remains a spot on the U.S. National Team in the World Cup.
But for now, his game and perceived skill level has him playing in Denmark — not too far removed from the U.S. roster and only a handshake away from having his contract sold to a club in a higher European league.
Never more than a few feet from a phone.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or email@example.com.