The Championship and League One seasons have lengthened their season suspensions over the coronavirus pandemic, with the training moratorium moving to May 15. There is understandably no new target date for the restart of either seasons.
Given the delays into May and the number of clubs who are heavy on college players, it became increasingly problematic to consider a full season. All our best to clubs navigating a season without the game. Come back stronger.
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.
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.
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.
“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?”
League Two operates at the unofficial fourth tier of American soccer and has long been a showcase for top college players wishing to maintain their eligibility. Tim Ream, Graham Zusi, and Geoff Cameron are among a long list of USMNT veterans to have played in L2 — formerly called the PDL — before going pro.
The problem is that the season is played in a tight window between the end of college spring semesters and the recalling of players for fall. And each week that passes in May shrinks the window for clubs, some of whom are filled with a majority of out-of-town players.
Throw in the variety of obstacles for small clubs spread across a gigantic country in the coronavirus era and you’ve got a significant challenge.
The National Premier Soccer League, a fellow “fourth-tier” operation, announced earlier this week that it was “canceling” its 2020 schedule and re-evaluating how it can support its clubs should they want to play this summer. The UPSL postponed its season’s start to May 2, though that’s looking quite early, too.
So we talked this weekend with USL vice president Joel Nash about plans for the summer with League Two. He says a lot of clubs are raring to play once it’s safe, and that they will find the right road together.
“Our first priority has to be the health and wellness of everyone involved with our league, but based on the feedback we’ve received from our owners, it’s still our intent to play in 2020,” Nash said.
He says that some clubs or even entire divisions may find that it “makes sense to forego participation in this year’s competition” and that the USL will support those clubs.
“Our decision-making going forward will be rooted in the information we receive from public health experts. We’re in regular communication with local, state, and national health authorities, as well as the CDC. We also sit on a national COVID-19 task force comprised of medical, legal, and operational experts from U.S. Soccer, Major League Soccer and the NWSL, to ensure that we are all aligned, and sharing guidance and best practices. Based on the information we receive, and the input of our owners, we’ll continue to make decisions that put the health and safety of our players, supporters and staff first.”
Could that mean an odd league season structure or some unusual competitions? Maybe. This is an atypical time in the world.
“We may have to get creative with our competitive format, but that’s true of everyone in sports at the moment,” Nash said. “We’re in daily conversations about how we can all work together give our clubs as many games as possible. … We are going to prioritize getting the greatest number of games in for the most number of L2 teams that want to play. We will then work with our owners to identify other non-L2 teams that we could supplement for additional games.”
Currently the United Soccer League is focused on establishing a successful new third division in USL League One to help fill out the professional U.S. soccer structure, which is a necessary precursor to any implementation of a promotion and relegation system. That said, the new structure does lend itself well to some form of promotion and relegation in the future.
That’s not a no, though USL would still not be an open system and it’s hard to see how the PDL (now League Two) could make that jump considering the majority of its current players are bound by the current NCAA window.
The naming of the divisions along the Football League model met with some derision online, but it’s a familiar tune for soccer fans around the globe.
“We are repositioning the competition under MLS with a new strategy, new names and logos,” said USL CEO Alec Papadakis. “As we look to the future, the USL is ready to put its fingerprints on U.S. Soccer’s drive toward becoming the best in the world, and its pursuit of winning a FIFA Men’s World Cup.”