Jimmy Conrad knew this Spring was going to be a new and challenging time in his career well before coronavirus became a worldwide pandemic.
The retired USMNT defender and former MLS Defender of the Year was set to embark on his first managerial position as head coach of USL League Two side San Francisco Glens, where he served as technical director last year.
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Instead of gearing up for a May start, however, Conrad’s Glens are one of many clubs in a realm of uncertainty regarding when it will be safe to train, let alone play. USL League Two “still intends to play in 2020” but postponed at least the first three days of its season to coincide with the League One and Championship schedule changes.
We spoke with the 27-times capped Conrad about that and his playing career, which was a plucky rise through every level of the American soccer landscape. We also spoke about what he’d change about the U.S. Soccer Federation during this time of turmoil, and what still irks him about the 2018 World Cup qualifying fiasco (You can listen to the entire 50-minute conversation here).
Let’s start with the new gig, which Conrad says he’d like to be the start of a managerial career. He headed right into media after his playing days, becoming incredibly popular with a six-figure subscriber total on YouTube in what he calls going “down an incredible rabbit hole” away from the traditional employ of the beautiful game.
But an opportunity opened up when Glens coach Javier Ayala-Hil took a job with the University of San Francisco men.
“I’m raring and eager to take over and see what I’m made of,” Conrad said. “It’s one thing to talk as a pundit, doing podcasts, and doing social media and you’re on the outside. I know what it looks like on the inside as a former player but to actually be in charge of a team and to learn how to communicate properly because not everyone absorbs information the same way? It’s an unbelievable challenge.”
That’s a test that will be complicated by players who are not only isolated now but without the benefit of a spring season with their college or a dozen men’s league matches to stay in shape.
In some ways, Conrad says it will help him see what his players are made of in a league which serves as a showcase for hopeful professionals.
“This is going to really determine who can handle adversity and who can’t,” he said. “How can I work on my game when the season isn’t happening and things aren’t going exactly the way I want? In some ways, this unprecedented situation is weeding the guys out for you. Those who take advantage of this time, who are lifting weights, or working on their weak foot, or first touch, are the ones who are going to be professionals. But the ones who can’t handle it, and crack under this type of pressure, they aren’t going to stick. That might be a really harsh way of looking at it, but this is how it goes where you have to cut your teeth against as I say grown men in small shorts kicking a ball in a certain direction. It’s a real thin line between success and failure.”
What gives Conrad the faith in himself as a coach comes from his background. He wasn’t a hot commodity as a high school or college player. That didn’t stop him from becoming a six-time MLS All-Star or making it onto a World Cup pitch.
He believes that the lows and highs of his experience will help him associate with any player that makes their way onto the Glens roster in League Two.
“One of the advantages I have is I didn’t get recruited out of high school,” he said. “When I won the national championship in college I was the one senior who didn’t get drafted into MLS. I worked my way into being a free agent and signing with San Jose and I didn’t start right away.
“I was never the guy. I had to learn how to develop those skills. Eventually when I got the confidence to be the guy, I was up for MLS Defender of the Year. I was a six-time MLS All-Star, Humanitarian of the Year, got with the national team, and I just feel like I can relate to every single player. I don’t think I skipped any steps. I had to struggle, then I made it, then I had to struggle again. I got hurt, had to deal with the injuries.
“I’ve dealt with the pressure of having success and how to maintain that, having kids throughout the process, getting married. Everything included, I think that gives me a big advantage, but it’s how you give off that information and how they’re absorbing that information that will determine whether I’m a good coach or a great one.”
If you’ll allow some editorializing, Conrad’s tenacity is best exemplified by his eventual arrival on the USMNT national team scene.
He had become one of the top defenders in MLS, but wasn’t getting looks. He’d see his teammates leave for international camps and feel hunger pangs.
“I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to know what it felt like. I didn’t express it to anybody but I really wanted it inside. It just never happened I’d see Bruce at places and he wouldn’t even look at me, and I thought, ‘What do I have to do?’
He didn’t debut for Arena until deep into his 20s, and once turned down a call-up because it came during a players’ dispute. He wanted to make the team on his merits, and it clobbered him to turn down the call.
He’d play in every game at the next Gold Cup, which the U.S. won, and made two appearances with one start at the 2006 World Cup.
The occasion, as you can imagine, left an indelible imprint on his life as a player and citizen.
“It’s the World Cup, and you’re there, and you know that your whole country is cheering for you,” he said. “The national anthem never sounded like that to me as it did at the World Cup and hasn’t since. It’s an unbelievable feeling to know that you’re representing hundreds of millions back home and they’re all pulling for you. No politics, whatever. It made the hard work and sacrifice all worth it.”
Conrad has continued to follow the USMNT and USWNT for reasons both passionate and career-related.
The failures of the federation both on-the-field (2018 World Cup qualifying) and off has left Conrad with plenty of criticisms and hopes. He sees a tie between the malaise he believed permeated the qualifying campaign and what’s happened at fed HQ in Chicago.
He’s intrigued that more USMNT and USWNT experienced players are on the soccer side and praises the hirings of Kate Markgraf, Earnie Stewart, and Brian McBride. He hopes the business side can start simply doing the right thing.
“There’s a need for new blood,” he said. “We’re really loyal and the people who’ve been there a long time, they are protecting what they built. A lot of them have put 20, 30, 40 years in. To think we have to move them along for new blood seems very harsh but there’s a way to do it where we can work together.
“They need to hire more people. There’s just not enough people to tackle all these roles. I’ll talk to someone at U.S. Soccer and MLS and they’re doing five different things. I respect their hustle, but man it would probably be a lot easier if we had more people. That’s slowly starting to happen in MLS. That’s a good sign, but U.S. Soccer is still stuck at Soccer House in Chicago, at this broken down castle, and they need to evolve.”
Conrad added that there needs to be as much ownership of the failures as the successes. Yes, MLS has risen dramatically and the USSF has very much helped that. And the USWNT is one of the best teams in the world.
But from so many key pieces of the qualifying failure, right down to the man Conrad says he owes his USMNT career, there has not been a lot of acceptance of any share of responsibility.
“I don’t think it needs to be one person raising their hand, but nobody wants the responsibility,” Conrad said. “I did a video for this little thing I’m doing called The Soccer Minute where Bruce Arena came out and said it isn’t his fault. Nobody wants the responsibility. I owe my whole World Cup experience and national team chances to Bruce Arena. I love the guy, but I was really disappointed. I was just really disappointed that he didn’t say I could’ve done better.
“He picks the players and the players didn’t show up in that last game either. I feel like more people would take responsibility if he would raise his hand and say I could’ve done better. And then other guys would say, ‘Yeah you know what, I could’ve done better, too’ And then we could most past it. I think we all just want to here some collective responsibility but it’s always everybody deflecting all the time and what kind of message does that send?”