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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.

Burning question: How will the USMNT perform as World Cup hosts?

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We know the question is fraught with variables, but let’s consider this question during this dead period in world soccer: What should we expect from the United States men’s national team at the home World Cup.

The USMNT will presumably have a ninth World Cup under its belt when it joins Canada and Mexico in hosting the 2026 World Cup.

Expectations will be sky-high for the Yanks, eight years removed from failure to qualify for the 2018 tournament and 22 years after hosting the World Cup that would jumpstart soccer in this country.

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It’s wild to think about a 27-year-old Christian Pulisic leading the Yanks as presumed captain. Health-willing, the winger will be somewhere in the 80-cap range and potentially have a resume as decorated as any in history at his age.

Let’s begin by talking about who will be on the roster, considering we cannot know the identity of the coach or which players will explode onto the scene. Maybe Keegan Rosenberry or Donovan Pines get chances and grasp them. Maybe both disappear from the picture. Six years is a long time, so we’ll stick with the familiar.

Given the tremendous changes at the top of U.S. Soccer and a spirit amongst fans which has been downright venomous, it may be difficult to imagine Gregg Berhalter will still be at the helm unless his side has a remarkable tournament in Qatar, but it’s possible (For what it’s worth, Berhalter’s USMNT playing career happened alongside new USMNT general manager Brian McBride).

So let’s look at the class of players who are in the picture now and would also still be in their primes, assuming health.

Near certainties

We’re lending some leeway to Dest, Weah, and Reyna given their early and impressive starts to careers at elite European clubs, and a little bit to Steffen, too; Whether the Fortuna Dussseldorf loan man is the No. 1 is a conversation to be had, but his experience gives him a foothold as a member of the corps.

  • Pulisic, 27
  • Weston McKennie, 27
  • Tyler Adams, 27
  • Zack Steffen, 31
  • Giovanni Reyna, 23
  • Tim Weah, 26
  • Sergino Dest, 25

The wily vets: We know there will be late bloomers and those that play deep into their 30s — Gyasi Zardes may become the USMNT’s new Chris Wondolowski if he hasn’t already — but these five names are well-established now and well-liked by the hierarchy.

  • Jordan Morris, 31
  • John Brooks, 33
  • DeAndre Yedlin, 32
  • Walker Zimmerman, 33
  • Cristian Roldan, 31

Young, experienced, but with questions: It’s a touch harsh to have Sargent here, as recency bias is the challenge (He’s struggled of late but has a very strong resume at Werder Bremen and with the USMNT). He also will have to contend with a pool of very deep and young attackers.  Miazga and Horvath also possess the resume and acumen, but there are enough minor questions about playing time — getting it and keeping it — at the very top levels of Europe.

  • Josh Sargent, 26
  • Matt Miazga, 30
  • Ethan Horvath,  30

How will they fare with a step up? There’s nothing to dislike about this crew apart from where they are playing now. Cannon, Miles Robinson, and Yueill are in a strengthened MLS but that is still not a guarantee on the international stage. Antonee Robinson was denied a January move to AC Milan, and the Wigan Athletic man is going to get a big look from someone soon since he plays left back. Cannon and he will get a chance almost as soon as the transfer window opens again.

  • Reggie Cannon, 28
  • Antonee Robinson, 28
  • Miles Robinson, 29
  • Jackson Yueill, 29

Oh, we sure do hope so: Whether playing on second sides of German powers, dipping their toes in the Premier League like Aston Villa’s Indiana Vassilev, or in a sea of MLS or Eredivisie hopefuls, there are a ton of buoyant young players waiting for their turn on the stage.

We include older Cameron Carter-Vickers due to his loan experience in the Championship, and two names on here are the wildest of wild cards. Folarin Balogun is lighting up the PL2 for Arsenal but has repped England youth since playing for the Americans, while Konrad de la Fuente is training with Barcelona’s first team but there’s a looooong road from Barcelona B to first team playing time.

Even this list leaves off Brandon Servania, James Sands, Charlie Kellman, and a host of others with seemingly effervescent futures.

  • Chris Richards, 26
  • Indiana Vassilev, 25
  • Ulysses Llanez, 25
  • Jesus Ferreira, 25
  • Konrad de la Fuente, 24
  • Paxton Pomykal, 26
  • Cameron Carter-Vickers, 28
  • Richie Ledezma, 25
  • Chris Gloster, 25
  • Alex Mendez, 25
  • Mason Toye, 27
  • Sebastian Soto, 25
  • Folarin Balogun*, 24

So what does it mean?

Having already qualified and playing on home soil, the Yanks will be playing in an expanded field. Unless the nation experiences unparalleled drop-offs in form and development, the side will enter the tournament with high expectations at home.

A perceived group of death will no longer be met by “Well, maybe next time.” Questions will be more on defenders than anything else, although the U.S. men have yet to find the latest from the Tim Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller time line of elite backstops (Honorable mention to Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando).

Admitting that the exercise of, “What’s gonna happen in six years?” is rooting deeply in our current soccer landscape’s dormant state, we project the Yanks to be in the knockout rounds with a chance — however small or large — to get past whoever gets in their way.

CONCACAF postpones Nations League finals, Gold Cup qualification

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CONCACAF announced on Friday that the 2019-20 Nations League finals and the opening rounds of 2021 Gold Cup qualification have been postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

[ MORE: UEFA threatens Belgian league with European expulsion ]

The Nations League finals — featuring the U.S. men’s national team, Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras — were previously scheduled to take place in Houston and Dallas in early June. CONCACAF says the semifinals and final will be rescheduled for a later date.

The seconds round of Gold Cup qualifying was previously scheduled to be made up in June — following their postponement in March, with four two-leg ties featuring largely Caribbean and Central American nations. Those, too, will be rescheduled for a later date.

Given the ongoing public health situation, and following consultation with FIFA regarding the international football calendar, we have made the decision to suspend the CONCACAF Nations League finals, which was scheduled for June 4-7, 2020 in the Houston and Dallas areas.

The event, which includes the Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and USA men’s national teams, will be rescheduled to take place at a later date in venues to be determined. This will be confirmed following further discussions with FIFA regarding the remaining international windows in the football calendar, and will obviously be subject to public health authorities deeming it safe for professional sports events to resume.

Burning question: Best player you’ve ever seen live

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We’ve all had the chance to have Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah, and others blow our minds on television screens, but there’s something special about seeing the magic in living color.

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So we’re wondering: Who’s the best player you’ve ever seen live? Hit up the comments section with your takes, and allow me to walk you through mine.

International: It’s August 10, 2010 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and your United States men’s national team is taking the field for the first time since Ghana ended the World Cup dreams of Bob Bradley’s boys with a 2-1 defeat in Rustenberg.

The vibe at the AO tailgate is lively, friends from all over the country gathered in the Garden State to see the hosts welcome a Brazil side that blew a halftime lead against the Netherlands to bow out in the World Cup quarterfinals.

It’s fortunate that the AO seats that wound up in my hands were a few rows behind Tim Howard, because that was the end to see most of the first half.

Brazil left Kaka and Luis Fabiano at home, which begged what they might’ve done with those two pulling the strings. It’s not worth too much debate, because Mano Menezes’ Starting XI included Robinho, Ramires, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves, and Alexandre Pato and a kid making his international debut.

His name was Neymar, and any hopes of the youngster being humbled by the big crowd and his first cap were dashed immediately. While it wasn’t the virtuoso show we’d see so many times in Barcelona, PSG, and Brazil shirts moving forward, it was clear this kid had it.

The thumping header at the back post meant it took less than a half-hour for Neymar Jr. to show us his first of 61 senior goals and counting for Brazil. He was young, naive, unrefined… and electric.

Club: This one’s more difficult, if only because the majority of the senior action I’ve seen in person has been in Major League Soccer, with a few jaunts overseas. There’s always a ‘guy’ who stands out, though, per game, whether a young and gigantic Andy Carroll for Newcastle at Stoke in 2009, Niklas Dorsch running the midfield for Heidenheim in relegating Duisburg from the Bundesliga last Spring, or Frank Lampard and Kaka dueling in Orlando a few years earlier.

But the most dominant forces I’ve seen on a consistent basis have both had ties to Canada. On the MLS side, any chance to see Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC at BMO Field was a chance to catch a firefly, but in terms of sheer dominance I’m looking to the ladies.

Christine Sinclair was the best player on a loaded Western New York Flash roster when I was their play-by-play man during the 2011 WPS season. Now the all-time leading scorer amongst women, Sinclair punished teams that season and stood out despite a roster that included Marta, Alex Morgan, Caroline Seger, Ashlyn Harris, and McCall Zerboni amongst others.

Sinclair scored in regulation of a final against Philadelphia that went to penalty kicks, and converted her spot kick, too. If Zlatan is a lion, she’s part of the same pride. A force.

(Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

College/Amateur: Before my alma mater unceremoniously cut men’s soccer, the University at Buffalo played in the Mid American Conference and delivered all sorts of high drama. The highlight was usually the visit of Akron, a national champion who had been neck-and-neck with the Buffalo Bulls in the 2000s before putting a stranglehold on the rivalry. UB was the runner-up to Akron in 2015 and 2016 behind a brilliant team featuring now-USL player Russell Cicerone and a future New Zealand club captain in Fox Slotemaker. The 2016 season gives us our story.

The Zips had a freshman on the right side who was almost always in the right place, with mind-bending pace to help with the times he was caught astray. Jonathan Lewis had spent a season abroad with Bradford City before opting for school, and he was a one-and-done in Ohio after recording 12 assists, one in that game. I’ve seen some incredible college talents, but Lewis was the best by a good margin. He’s now earned six USMNT caps and 48 MLS appearances between NYCFC and Colorado at the age of 22.

What does Olympics postponement mean for U.S. men?

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The postponement of Tokyo 2020 means the United States U-23 men and their loaded roster will have to wait for their chance to qualify for a first Olympics since 2008.

That’s not news, but who comprises the qualifying roster might be.

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The cut-off birth date for the tournament was set for Jan. 1, 1997, but there’s some question as to whether the International Olympic Committee will move that forward a year or keep the original date.

Considering the amount of time coach Jason Kreis and U.S. Soccer have put into making this team a force, that’s a big question.

Who could the roster lose if the date gets moved to exclude 1997 birthdays? Jackson Yueill, Justen Glad, Erik Palmer-Brown, Sebastian Saucedo, Jeremy Ebobisse, JT Marcinkowski, Aaron Herrera, Hassani Dotson, and Jonathan Lewis.

That’s nine of the 20 Kreis named for qualifying. It would also removed injured or uncalled players like Antonee Robinson, Keaton Parks, Brooks Lennon, and Haji Wright.

It’s not a terrible worry, to be honest, because it does affect the field. Erick Aguirre, Cesar Montes, and Uriel Antuna are amongst 12 Mexican players who would miss the cut.

There will be also players 23-and-under who grow leaps and bounds as players in interim. It is, however, a worry.

If there’s a big winner, it’s probably Canada. Many of the key pieces for Mauro Biello’s Les Rouges are safe even if it’s moved to 1998.