Jimmy Conrad
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Conrad talks U.S. Soccer as he waits for managerial debut

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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).

Jimmy Conrad
Razak Pimpong of Ghana gets tackled by Conrad  at the 2006 World Cup (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

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?’

Conrad captaining the USMNT at the 2009 Gold Cup (Photo by Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

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.

So when he finally got a camp invitation he could accept, he set his sights small. Kansas City teammate Nick Garcia was already part of the USMNT system, and Conrad obsessively went about proving he could be an improvement.
“All I wanted to prove was that I was better than Nick Garcia, I don’t even know that he knows this,” Conrad said. “I would purposely try to get in running groups with Nick. I would make sure I would beat Nick in every single thing that we did. What’s crazy about it is it kinda took the pressure off. This was such a monumental thing for me and I knew that over three weeks I could prove my worth for sure. I think because of having such a small goal, I didn’t get overwhelmed by the moment.”

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?”

You can listen to the full interview here.

UK government gives PL green light for contact training

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The UK government has given the Premier League and the Championship the green light to resume contact training after publishing stage two of its return to training guidance.

This is a big boost for the Premier League ‘Project Restart’ plans ahead of a pivotal week of meeting and votes about playing the remaining 92 games of the 2019-20 season.

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Since last week all 20 Premier League clubs have been taking part in small-group training at a social distance as clubs agreed unanimously to return to training as part of stage one of the protocols.

Late Sunday the UK government released guidelines on stage two of training for elite athletes as contact training is now permitted. Per the stage two guidelines, athletes are allowed to ‘opt out’ of training ‘without any resulting discrimination.’

It is not known whether or not players who contract COVID-19 while in stage two of training may have to quarantine for 14 days. That is said to be something which will be discussed in full detail in the coming days in the Premier League meetings, while below is a little more from the UK government explanation on stage two.

  • Stage Two training can be described as the resumption of close contact (interaction within the two metre social distancing boundary) training where pairs, small groups and/or teams will be able to interact in much closer contact (e.g. close quarters coaching, combat sports sparring, teams sports tackling, technical equipment sharing, etc).
  • The progression of training into Stage Two is vital to prepare fully for the return of competitive sporting fixtures in many sports. Close contact training is required to replicate match formations and conditions, so that the sport-specific demands can be placed on the body, mind and senses. Close contact training develops the sport-specific fitness which is an essential element for player safety and a reduced risk of injury during competition.
  • It is anticipated that engaging in this type of training would start with smaller ‘clusters’ of 2-3 athletes and eventually progress to larger groups of 4-12 athletes, and ultimately full team training, without social distancing possible at all times. Under Stage Two conditions, as per Stage One, social distancing will continue to be the expectation at all other times aside from technical training.

Speaking about the stage two guidelines, UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said: “This new guidance marks the latest phase of a carefully phased return to training process for elite athletes, designed to limit the risk of injury and protect the health and safety of all involved. We are absolutely clear that individual sports must review whether they have the appropriate carefully controlled medical conditions in place before they can proceed, and secure the confidence of athletes, coaches and support staff.

“Given the wide ranging input we have received from medical experts, we believe these pragmatic measures should provide further reassurance that a safe, competitive training environment can be delivered, as we work towards a restart of professional sport behind closed doors when it is safe to do so.”

Premier League clubs, players and managers will meet in the coming days to discuss the protocols in place around a return to contact training and clubs are due to vote on Wednesday whether or not to sanction the move to stage two.

This is a big boost for the Premier League and Championship as both had been waiting to get the green light from the government before their clubs could vote on the plan for a return to contract training.

All 20 Premier League clubs will meet on several video conference calls to discuss the protocols around a return to full-contact training as players, managers and the Premier League will discuss the details with medical experts. Several Premier League stars have revealed their angst about returning to training.

Per the guidelines, moving to stage two provides more risk of COVID-19 infection: “Due to the increased risk of transmission under Stage Two conditions, the COVID-19 officer must have a clear policy for managing a COVID-19 positive individual and abide by Government guidelines and reporting requirements.”

The Premier League confirmed over the weekend that from 1,744 tests on players and staff across the first two rounds of COVID-19 tests, eight positive tests have been recorded with players from both Watford and Bournemouth confirmed to have the virus. Two positive COVID-19 tests had arrived after 1,014 players and staff in the Championship were tested.

Premier League players will again be tested on Monday and Tuesday and the results of those tests will be key in seeing how the strict protocols at training grounds are working.

Now that the UK government has given clear guidance to the Premier League about how it can return to contact training, it is now down to clubs, medical experts, players and managers to all agree on the safest path forward.

There is still a long way to go until games return but this is another step on the path towards the 2019-20 season returning.

Transfer news: King to Man United; Tagliafico to Arsenal

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In the latest transfer news Josh King has been linked with a move to Man United this summer as several top clubs are circling, while Ajax and Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico could be heading to Arsenal.

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First up, our partners at Sky Sports in the UK have a beauty of a report which states that four of the Premier League’s top six clubs want to sign Bournemouth striker Josh King.

King, 28, was the subject of a late bid form Man United in the January window but the Cherries turned it down as they needed him to help with their relegation battle. Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe admitted it was tough on King and the players also revealed he was it was tough to see the move blocked, as he came through Man United’s youth academy and the Norwegian international is close with Man United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. King has scored 46 goals in 154 Premier League appearances for Bournemouth and has been instrumental since they were promoted to the top-flight in 2015. King loves Man United and this would clearly be a good fit for all concerned.

Per the fresh report, Man United are keen on King because he can play centrally and wide and with Odion Ighalo’s future uncertain amid his loan move from Shanghai Shenhua, Solskjaer wants to add one more striker this summer. King has one year left on his contract and Bournemouth are expected to cash in on him but Chelsea are also said to be interested, as well as two other ‘top six’ clubs.

Bournemouth rejected a $25 million offer for King in January but they would snap anybody’s hand off for that this summer given the financial situation due to the coronavirus pandemic and the fact King will have just one year left on his current deal. Bournemouth have already been burned by not extending Ryan Fraser’s contract and he is set to be out of contract on July 1.

Tagliafico
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Heading from Manchester to London, Arsenal are said to be interested in Ajax and Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico.

The Gunners continue to be linked with plenty of defenders and even though it is believed Mikel Arteta will not have a big transfer budget in the upcoming transfer windows, Tagliafico for $25 million is a steal.

According to the Sun, Arsenal want the 27-year-old as Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar recently said that Tagliafico, Andre Onana and Donny van de Beek are free to leave this summer if their transfer value is met. Tagliafico is said to be keen on a fresh challenge and wants a move to the Premier League.

Do Arsenal need a left back? Teenage star Bukayo Saka has been splendid out of position at left back this season but both he and Arsenal are keen to move him back into his natural position as a left winger, while young Scottish left back Kieran Tierney has struggled with injuries throughout his debut campaign in the Premier League.

Tagliafico can also play as a left-sided center back and with the Gunners experimenting at times with a 3-4-3 formation, he would give them flexibility and defensive options. It is clear Arsenal need to improve defensively and Tagliafico is a very solid left back who is good on the ball and is also a goal threat at the other end of the pitch.

Cologne deny Fortuna with amazing late comeback (video)

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Relegation-threatened Fortuna Dusseldorf thought they had secured a massive win away at FC Cologne in the Rhine Derby on Sunday as Kenan Karaman and Erik Thommy struck in each half to put them 2-0 up, but the hosts struck twice late on to grab a dramatic 2-2 draw.

Anthony Modeste and Jhon Corodba were the heroes for Cologne, who blew a 2-0 lead last week to draw 2-2 at home with Mainz but this time out they were on the other end of a comeback.

It didn’t look like being Cologne’s day for vast swathes of the game as at 1-0 to Fortuna, Florian Kastenmeier saved Mark Uth’s penalty kick in what looked like a key moment for Uwe Rosler’s Fortuna who are embroiled in the Bundesliga relegation battle.

The draw sees Fortuna move onto 24 points as they sit in 16th place, which is the relegation playoff spot. After a big win for 17th place Werder Bremen this weekend, plus heavy defeats for Mainz, Augsburg and Eintracht Frankfurt above them, the Bundesliga relegation battle has become extremely intriguing. A note for USMNT fans: midfielder Alfredo Morales put in a tireless 90 minute shift in central midfield.

Cologne sit 10th on 34 points and are in the hunt for Europa League qualification.

Fortuna went ahead early on as Karaman found some space in the box and his shot deflected in as the away side led at the break.

Cologne were handed the perfect opportunity to get back into the game in the second half as Uth first hit the post, then was denied by Kastenmeier before he was scythed down in the box as a penalty kick was awarded.

Uth, who scored a penalty kick last week, appeared to take the ball off Cordoba and Kastenmeier produced a fine save down low as Fortuna celebrated wildly once the ball was cleared.

Buoyed by that penalty save, Fortuna went up the other end moments later and doubled their lead as the ball found Thommy at the back post and he curled a sumptuous effort into the far corner.

Fortuna believed they were home and dry.

With 88 minutes on the clock, the Cologne comeback began as Modeste headed home superbly to make it 2-1 and give his side hope of grabbing a point.

 

In the 91st minute the equalizer arrived in similar fashion.

Fortuna ran out of steam and another cross from the right found Cordoba who nodded home to snatch a point for the hosts.

The draw felt like a win for Cologne and it was a sickening blow for a Fortuna side who badly need all three points in their battle against the drop.

Crucial week ahead for the Premier League

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The upcoming week is a huge one for the Premier League as a key vote and serious talks are set to take place with regards to restarting the 2019-20 season.

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All 20 clubs will meet on several video conference calls to discuss the protocols around a return to full-contact training, subject to government approval, as players, managers and the Premier League will discuss the details with medical experts. The UK government have yet to release details about stage two of a return to training for professional athletes and several Premier League stars have revealed their angst about returning to training.

Clubs will then vote on a return to full-contact training on Wednesday and depending on the outcome of that vote, that will shape further talks. If full-contact training is given the thumbs up, it is expected that on Thursday clubs will then discuss the plan to either restart the season in mid-June or curtailment plans which would see the table potentially decided on a points-per-game basis.

The Premier League confirmed over the weekend that from 1,744 tests on players and staff across the first two rounds of COVID-19 tests, eight positive tests have been recorded with players from both Watford and Bournemouth confirmed to have the virus.

Players will again be tested on Monday and Tuesday and the results of those tests will be key in seeing how the strict protocols at training grounds are working.

All 20 clubs unanimously voted in favor of a return to small-group training and they are all said to be in favor of a return to action, although some have publicly aired reservations.

The next few days seem pivotal as to whether or not the final 92 games of the Premier League season will be played and all eyes will be on the vote on Wednesday, if the UK government can provide details on the new protocols.

With the Bundesliga off and running, La Liga set for a June 8 restart and Serie A planning for a mid-June restart, the Premier League are correctly being cautious when it comes to a restart. Sooner or later they need to vote on a path forward and this week will be crucial.