Q&A: Sporting Legend Jimmy Conrad reflects on memorable matches, 2006 World Cup, Manchester United friendly and more

Jimmy Conrad dribbling - Kansas City Wizards

With Major League Soccer’s 25th season on temporary hold, there is no better time to cast a fond look back at the greatest moments and stories in Sporting Kansas City history. As a proud charter member of MLS and one of the league’s most successful teams, Sporting has been graced by numerous stars whose colossal impacts on the pitch still resonate to this day.
Among the many beloved Kansas City fan favorites is former defender and U.S. international Jimmy Conrad. The center back anchored Kansas City’s backline from 2003-2010 as a perennial MLS All-Star and a vibrant personality with tremendous passion for the sport. caught up with Conrad this week for a Q&A that covered the biggest moments of his club career, his best memories in Kansas City and his unforgettable experiences with the U.S. Men’s National Team.

You were born and raised in California, played college soccer at San Diego State and UCLA, then began your MLS career in 1999 with the San Jose Earthquakes. You had never lived anywhere outside of California until you were traded to Kansas City in 2003. How did that trade go down and what was your initial reaction to moving to the Midwest?

It was in the middle of January, right before the 2003 MLS SuperDraft, and I was working very hard up until that point preparing myself for another season with the San Jose Earthquakes—with coach Frank Yallop and a group of guys I had won MLS Cup with in 2001. I was really looking forward to it in that capacity, but then I got a call from Frank who said that I’d been traded to Kansas City. It was pretty shocking, if only because I wasn’t prepared for it. My wife had also just started law school in San Francisco, so then you start thinking about all of the real-life implications. I told my mom about it and she started crying. She didn’t know anything about Kansas City and it just seemed so far from home. I had never lived outside of California before, so it was a big shock for everybody at first.

For me, after the initial shock and the implications it had on other people in my life, I welcomed the opportunity to kind of start fresh and anew. I could sense that I maybe wasn’t going to fit San Jose’s plan moving forward—that they could move forward if they had someone else in mind. It felt nice to go to a team where you felt wanted in some way, and that was a cool feeling.

What were your preexisting thoughts of Kansas City at the time?

I was already familiar with Kansas City. It was the first place I had ever played an MLS game. My first action in 1999 was coming on as a sub, and (Kansas City midfielder) Chris Brown scored an equalizer in the last three minutes of the game at Arrowhead Stadium. So that was my first introduction to MLS—playing in Kansas City. I already had a special tie to the city in that regard, but there was still some shock making that move. I knew where Kansas City was and I had been there and played there, but I didn’t know much about the culture and where it fit in the big scheme of things in the Midwest.

There’s a feeling about being traded where you don’t have any control of your own career. That can be difficult to adjust to at first. But once I got past that, I welcomed the opportunity in Kansas City in open arms and was very excited to play for a coach in Bob Gansler who turned out to be a great guy for my career.

Talk about the initial challenges of moving from San Jose to Kansas City. You mentioned that your wife was in the middle of law school in San Francisco, so how did that situation unfold?

One of the things we had to figure out was our living situation. How was she going to finish school? Was there a place somewhere nearby where she could go? And looking back, honestly the move to Kansas City ended up being the best thing for both us—personally and professionally. It gave her an opportunity to reach out to the dean of her school at UC Hastings in San Francisco, and she had gotten to know him on a personal level. Through those relationships with the dean, she got to know the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals judge in Lawrence, Kansas. She finished up her semester in San Francisco, then went to the University of Kansas for a year as a visiting student and got that school credit to transfer over.

Because of those relationships that she built and because of the people that she met at KU, she had a really special situation going. Everybody was really eager to help her out. That really bode well, and she ended up working for the judge for three or four years before taking on a job with a firm in Kansas City. It ended up working out great for her and her career—and obviously mine as well.

When I moved to Kansas City, someone was showing me and a few other players around town. There was an apartment complex at around 115th and Roe—the Tomahawk Creek Condominiums. That’s where we lived our first four years in Kansas City, and then my family bought a house in Brookside. We still own that house and we still own the condo, as well.

You have two daughters. Were they both born in Kansas City?

My older daughter was born in Kansas City and my younger daughter was born in 2011 when I was with Chivas USA. She was formed in Kansas City but wasn’t born until I was back in California.

Q&A: Sporting Legend Jimmy Conrad reflects on memorable matches, 2006 World Cup, Manchester United friendly and more -

How did you and your wife settle into life as Kansas Citians? It’s a bit different than California.

It was a whole new world, man. I went from mountains and beaches my whole life to flat and super cold and super hot and super humid. It was a bit of a transition on that level, but you get used to it and you begin to appreciate the city. I tell people now that Kansas City is a hidden gem of the U.S. and of the Midwest. It’s just a great city with great people.

The 2004 season was great for the team and for you personally. What fell into place that year to allow for such a solid campaign?

Preki broke his leg in the preseason, and he was the league MVP the year before. Because of that, we kind of had to rework what our team identity was. We didn’t have our orchestrator—a guy who could pull something out of his rear and make something happen by himself. We had to rely on different people in different times to step up and be heroes. We did that in large part by being stingy defensively—it started there and we were always organized collectively. From a personal perspective, we had played a 3-5-2 formation when Preki was healthy. We would let him play underneath the two strikers, and since we didn’t want him to waste any energy defending, we put two defensive midfielders behind him to protect that space. Then we played three in the back.

When Preki got hurt, I want from being a marking back in a three-defender system to being a center back, which is what I thought my best position was. So for me, my career in some ways took off once we switched to a 4-4-2 with four defenders in the back. I started getting more attention, made the All-Star team, was a Defender of the Year finalist and I got called into a U.S. national team camp before the 2005 season started. So 2004 was a big year in a lot of different ways—for the team and for me.

Kansas City went on an impressive late-season surge in 2004, posting lots of shutouts en route to an MLS Cup appearance. What sticks out to you about that run?

The 4-4-2 seemed to fit the whole team a bit better, although we won a lot of games 1-0 and scored a lot of those lone goals in the second half. I always feared that if we scored too early in a game, then we would kind of revert back to what we knew and what we were comfortable with and have to defend for long periods of time. When you look at the 2004 MLS Cup against D.C. United, we scored really early on an awesome goal from Jose Burciaga. But I remember thinking, “How are we going to hold onto this lead for 85 minutes against a really good attacking team that’s going to push numbers forward because they have to.

We had really good players ourselves—Josh Wolff, Chris Klein, guys who could really sting you going the other way—but were we going to get them the ball if D.C. was coming at us with a lot of energy? We ended up allowing three goals in 15 minutes, one of them was super controversial. It felt like we hadn’t even given up three goals in three months up to that point.

That game in particular was a bit unique, and it was a shame because we were in line to win the double, which not many teams do. We had won the U.S. Open Cup a few months earlier, and to win MLS Cup on top of that would have been a really special season. Nonetheless, there were a lot of things to be proud of that year and we fell just short of really making history.

Q&A: Sporting Legend Jimmy Conrad reflects on memorable matches, 2006 World Cup, Manchester United friendly and more -

The team fell just short in the MLS Cup but had won the 2004 Open Cup at Arrowhead Stadium just a few months earlier, which must have been an incredible experience.

It was super cool because the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup had just switched names to putting “Lamar Hunt” at the front of the title. To be able to play that game in the stadium that he helped build, in a tournament that helped bring gravitas to, to win it in front of him, and then to get a hug from the man immediately afterwards—it’s unbelievable when I think back on it. That was a really cool experience. I’ll never forget getting a hug from him afterwards—he was so gracious and sweet, as he was obviously known to be.

I remember the goal, too. I remember exactly where I was when Igor Simutenkov scored the golden goal in extra time. Igor also lived at the Tomahawk Creek apartments, so we would drive to games together all the time and he’d talk in his broken English. To see Igor score a great goal for the club was really cool. I know it meant a lot to him to score a game-winner in overtime in a cup final. And he did it against a team in the Chicago Fire who are one of the more decorated Open Cup winners in the competition.

You had worked your way into the U.S. Men’s National Team setup by 2005 and got called into the World Cup squad in 2006. Did you see that coming and what are your prevailing memories about process?

I don’t think I ever expected it. I knew I was always on the bubble. I knew when I was called into the team in the months before the World Cup to keep my expectations tempered. This was the national team and Bruce Arena was trying to build a winning squad. I knew going in that if I was going to make the World Cup team—which seems so farfetched now, and even to this day it feels like we’re talking about someone else—it was going to be as a role player. My spot on the team would have been as a role player—a guy who made the team better when he stepped on the field and didn’t bring the team down, never felt sorry for himself, never brought attention to himself, did his job, was very supportive and was trying to push the guy ahead of him to be his best, too. That’s the only mentality and attitude I had at the time, and it served me well throughout the process.

I remember the 2005 Gold Cup was going to be a nice precursor for a certain group of guys, and that was a really good opportunity for me to showcase my attitude and my intangibles. It wasn’t always about ability. For the way that Bruce was going to fill up the roster, part of what he looked at was what type of people were going to make the team better as people. Who was going to be fun and lighthearted at the right moments and be serious at other moments?

I think I really fit what Bruce was looking for, and obviously I’m eternally grateful for him to have picked me and given me the chance to play at a World Cup. From a personal level, I don’t think that World Cup could have gone much better. On a team level, obviously, we felt hard done by with a penalty kick that was called on us against Ghana, but it’s a real thin line between success and failure at the highest level. I got to live that.

Do you recall the exact moment when you learned about getting selected to the World Cup team in 2006?

When I got named to the squad, I was at my apartment in Leawood. My wife was at work at the time in Lawrence and I was by myself. I didn’t hear anything the whole day. Nobody called me and nobody had said anything. Then Landon Donovan started joking with me on AOL Instant Messenger. There’s a throwback for you. And Landon said, “Hey, I got some great news for you.” My heart skipped and I’m like, “Oh, what is it?” He was one of our team leaders, so I thought for sure he had some inside scoop. And Landon just says, “Yeah, I saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico.”

It was a total jerk move to do to somebody as they were waiting to hear for big news. Looking back in hindsight, I think he knew I was going to be named to the team. I don’t think you’d do that to somebody if they weren’t going to be on the team, but I still hadn’t received any confirmation that night. So I actually learned when I watched Bruce name the team live on SportsCenter. That’s how I found out—through SportsCenter. It was absolutely unreal. Then my phone basically melted—I was getting so many phone calls from everyone.

My wife got home and neither of us could believe it. In many ways it had rewarded all the hard work, stress, adversity and doubts you experience along your journey. So we’re like, “Yeah, we’re not driving anywhere. Let’s go get dinner and a bottle of wine. I can’t remember the restaurant, I don’t think it’s there anymore, but we went down there and just had a nice dinner and shared a bottle of wine. We were just in awe of the whole thing.

Talk about your trip to Germany with the national team and the emotions you had representing your country in the world’s biggest sporting event.

When I got to camp in Germany, my initial reaction was, “Okay, this is amazing.” But you quickly realize that it’s a really hard camp. You’re there for two or three weeks and your killing yourself, and it’s so hard. The situation is unique because you almost go through preseason all over again. You’re running as hard as you’ve ever run when you’ve already put in half of a real season.

From there, the (novelty) starts to wear off that you’re on the team. Here I am, on the team and sweating and sacrificing and busting my butt. Then you realize, “Alright, it’s cool to be on the World Cup team. But it would be even cooler to play in a World Cup game.” It’s just funny how your goals change so fast. It’s one thing to say you were on a World Cup team. To say that you actually played in it is different level. So your whole mindset changes, and that’s how it was for me. I just wanted to play, and luckily I got that opportunity against Italy and Ghana.

To represent your country and be out there when you hear the national anthem, it’s unlike anything else. I get goosebumps thinking about it do this day. You feel an immense amount of pride, and in that moment, you know that everyone back home has your back. I can’t explain what that support feels like. You know that everybody has your back and everybody is pulling for you to play well. There’s not one person that you know in your country that wants you to fail. Hundreds of millions of people are pulling for you. They may not know your name, but they want you to win. It’s a really unique experience, and it’s hard to replicate outside of big sporting events like that.

You followed up your 2006 World Cup appearances with a famous goal in a win over Mexico in 2007, just days before your 30th birthday. If there’s any way to become an American hero, scoring against Mexico certainly doesn’t hurt.

I think I use that goal to my advantage every day on social media when I remind people and roll the clip. That was obviously a very big experience for me. That was our first big game after the 2006 World Cup, which didn’t end well. Bruce Arena had been fired and Bob Bradley had taken over. We had played Denmark before the Mexico game, but it was a friendly. Mexico felt different. Mexico is never friendly, and there were 80,000 people there.

The goal in the Mexico game, it was just incredible. It was awesome to be on the bench against Mexico in 2005 when we qualified for the 2006 World Cup, but I had never played against them until that point. I had played against Liga MX teams and against Mexican players, of course, but I had never played against Mexico. To be able to come out of that with a game-winning goal and a man of the match performance is just next level.

I remember when I got back to Kansas City after the game, Robb Heineman said he had been watching the game at a bar and that fans were chanting my name. That’s when he really started to understand how this game brings people together and how crazy the game can be. For me, it was super cool that he would share that story. It’s always meant a lot to me. That game is still surreal. My old club coach had also driven up from LA to see it, so there was a lot of fun stuff outside of the game itself that happened. What an experience.

You mention Robb Heineman, one of the several members who make up the Sporting Club ownership group. As someone who was playing in Kansas City when they bought the club in 2006, what stood out about their ambition to take this organization to a new level?

Like most people, the new ownership group was in awe of Lamar Hunt and everything he had done for sports in Kansas City and across the country. They were really thrilled to be able to sit at a table with the Hunt Family. I always liked that part of it. They were so excited to be a part of the sports conversation in Kansas City, and you could tell it really meant something to them. There have been some ownership groups in sports where you can sense that it’s more of an investment for them—that it’s like buying real estate and it’s just part of their portfolio. But you could tell with these owners right from the get go that they cared and were going to try to make a difference. They were going to try to make this something special in Kansas City.

I think Peter Vermes deserves a lot of credit because he guided ownership into making decisions that ultimately benefited the club. Getting our new stadium and getting out of CommunityAmerica Ballpark, that was all ownership. But in terms of investing in the Academy the right way, building a training facility and upping the game, it became less about following people and instead setting the benchmark. The ownership group was already (inherently) like that, and I think Peter (helped) as well. It was a combination of that and some really hungry players who wanted to prove themselves while doing good work in the community.

Everybody got rewarded for all of that hard work when we won MLS Cup in 2013. I was there at Children’s Mercy Park. It was a culmination of all the hard work everyone had put in over the previous few years, and I was so proud to see that come to fruition. Obviously I’m proud to be a Sporting Legend, where I can be part of the stadium in some capacity. It means a lot to me and my family that they would honor me in that way. But to be at that 2013 MLS Cup, it felt amazing. I felt like I was still a part of the team in some capacity, and for me it really validated everything that the ownership group put into it. This is why you did it—this is why you built the stadium and invested everything that you did.

The fact that Neal Patterson was still alive at the time and could enjoy it in relatively good health was really special. There were just so many special things going on at the time. You can’t replicate a year like that, and I’m just glad they won it when they did because it reinforced their decisions and kept them dreaming.

In many ways, the MLS Cup victory prompted the Sporting Club ownership group to reflect and ask the question, “What’s next? What’s the next big thing we can do?” They had set a high bar and wanted to raise it even further, right?

Ultimately that probably led them to building the new (Pinnacle) training facility and getting U.S. Soccer involved. They continue to push and invest in the Academy and double-down on things. I love that ownership group. They’re a special group of people and I can’t say enough for what they’ve done for the sport in Kansas City and for the country, because everyone else started playing catch-up. LAFC and Minnesota come (into MLS) and start building stadiums that look very similar and they’re using the same design firms.

You’ve got other places that are trying to match what the Cauldron is doing and all that stuff. Other clubs are doing a really good job too, but there’s something about Kansas City where when (opposing) players come to play, as much as the fans can be on them, they really enjoy playing there because it’s just a special place.

Perhaps no one has had a bigger role in the club’s success over the last decade than Peter Vermes, someone you played for in the latter stages of your Kansas City career.

I’ve always had tons of respect for Peter as a coach. He has a clear vision of how he wants to play and how that should look like. That hasn’t changed—that’s a hallmark of how his teams play. In some ways, I’ve learned from that now that I’m getting into coaching a USL League Two team, the San Francisco Glens. I’ve learned a ton from him in terms of how you shape a team and how you communicate. Peter and I are different people, but I would say as a coach that there are lots of things that I would—for lack of a better phrase—steal from him, just like I’ll steal things from Arena and Gansler, Bradley, Sigi Schmid, everyone I’ve been exposed to.

You take little bits and pieces from all of these coaches that you’ve been around, and I always though that Peter had a really clear vision of how he wanted his team to play. He has really good communication skills and he know how to get (concepts) across to his players. He’s really well-organized, really well thought-out and really well prepared. And that makes a difference. He highlights the little things, and the little things do matter. I’m of the same mindset.

Who were some of the best teammates and friends you had during your time in Kansas City?

Josh Wolff was my roommate both with the club and with the U.S. national team. He had kids before I did, but toward the end of our careers we were both young parents, so we were kind of living a parallel life. It was easy to relate to him and confide in him, and hopefully he would say vice versa. Kerry Zavagnin was someone else I roomed with during the Curt Onalfo years in particular. We got pretty close and we see the game in the same way. I know he’s on Peter’s coaching staff, so it’s no surprise to me that they’re having success with the type of people that Peter is surrounding himself with.

Davy Arnaud and Jack Jewsbury were great guys. Davy came to KC a year before I did, but I was close to him and Jack from the start. I sat next to Davy in the locker room every game. Chris Klein and Nick Garcia were great longtime teammates. That list doesn’t really end for me. Two guys I continue to talk to on a consistent basis are Francisco Gomez and Jose Burciaga.

Kansas City’s friendly against Manchester United at Arrowhead Stadium in July 2010 is often regarded as a pivotal turning point in club history. You certainly made an impact in the game with a first-half red card—sorry to mention it—but this was inarguably one of the biggest spectacles the club had ever been a part of.

I almost liken that game to when we scrimmage William Jewell College. For William Jewell, that’s like the biggest game of their season. If they beat us, it puts them on the map, right? “Whoa, William Jewell came in and ran Sporting Kansas City off the field!” That would get around. Then coaches would be like, “I wonder who’s one William Jewell that had the capacity to do that?”

So in a very similar way of thinking, that’s how the Manchester United game was for us. We had more to gain than we had to lose, so we could go out there and play free. They rolled out some good players, and it was awesome to be on the same field as (Ryan) Giggs, (Paul) Scholes, (Dimitar) Berbatov and others. I remember we scored early, and it was a really good goal, too. Sometimes when MLS teams play against European teams, there’s always some sort of excuse when the European team gives up a goal. But that was just a great goal—we scored a great goal. Good combination play, good running off the ball by Davy, good composure and he finishes it.

But then, the red card…

So we go up 1-0 and we have a ton of confidence, and at that point it was me and Shavar Thomas as center backs. We had been playing together for a long time and had a good rapport. And in that moment, I was holding the defensive line and Shavar was following his runner off the other shoulder. That kind of held everybody onside, and in fairness to Shavar, I might have held Berbatov onside by just a bit. When you play against some of the world’s best players, they’re very good at their timing of runs. At that point, I didn’t know if I wanted to give him a freebee. Did I really want to give Berbatov a layup?

Now, we had a goalkeeper in Jimmy Nielsen who I should have given the opportunity to make the save, which he was very good at. But I just couldn’t do it. I guess I got a rush of blood to the head in front of 50 or 60,000 people at Arrowhead. I wanted to be the hero here. I did get the ball on my challenge, but I had to get a big piece of Berbatov and go through him to get the ball. Look, it was a red card. I wish that in a friendly, it could have been a yellow. I know that (Manchester United manager) Sir Alex Ferguson was upset by it. He wanted us to play 11-v-11 because it was better for his team to do so.

But there are a couple of things that came from that red card, and maybe to my detriment, frankly. When I went off, that’s when Matt Besler got to play. Besler at that point hadn’t had too many meaningful minutes. In my opinion he hadn’t won over the coaching staff just yet. In that game, against some very good players, he did great. I was really proud of him. At that point, the coaches may have started considering, “Okay, maybe we can keep Jimmy although he’s getting older and more injury prone,”—which I was—“Or we can go with Besler and start to get him more meaningful minutes.”

That’s the decision they made, and I respect it because it worked out great for everybody. Well, I went to Chivas, that club died and I got a concussion and then retired. So maybe it wasn’t great for me, but for the club, in hindsight it was a great decision. Besler went on to be the captain, played at a World Cup, and I’m really proud of what he’s accomplished. He also wrote about me in his book, so I’ve got that going for me.

For those reasons, I think that game was pretty pivotal. I remember getting the red card and going to the locker room and feeling sorry for myself, but then picked myself up and went back to the bench and saw the rest of the game. Kei scored, we won and all was good. It all had a happy ending, and there were lots of great storylines to come out of it.

That game has certainly left a lasting legacy. The Wizards were relevant and soccer in Kansas City had a real pulse.

This was a big turning point in that it put us on the map. And more than anything, it gave us respect in our own market. People were like, “Oh, these guys can play. They can be a good team. They just went toe-to-toe with Manchester United, scored two good goals, and then held on with 10 men to win the game.” There was a big difference in our market. Like a week later, Manchester United went and played the MLS All-Stars and crushed them. It just put us on the map in a lot of different ways.

To this day, which professional club do you support the most? Who is No. 1 in your heart?

I 100 percent always identify with Sporting Kansas City. They are my MLS club. I do live in the Bay Area now, and the closest MLS club is San Jose where I played for four years and won a title, so I don’t try to be disrespectful to them in anyway. But I think they understand that I put in a good eight years in Kansas City. The peak of my career was in Kansas City. I’m on the wall of fame in Kansas City as a Sporting Legend. They never give me any grief about that in San Jose. Sporting Kansas City is always the team for me—it’ll always be the No. 1 team that support whether it’s in MLS or globally. I’m proud to be a part of the club’s history.

As MLS launches into a new decade with a keen eye for continued growth, what are your top-of-mind impressions of Sporting as a club? What does the organization mean to you?

When I think about Sporting Kansas City now, I identify them with being winners and having success—whether it’s the MLS Cup or Open Cup or making the playoffs for eight consecutive years. They try to do things and be the benchmark as opposed to reacting. They’re trying to set trends and really lead in a lot of ways both on and off the field. They take a lot of pride in that, and I take a lot of pride in knowing that’s what my club stands for. I can’t emphasize enough how great the culture is that Peter has instilled, and the decisions that ownership makes would be the same as if I was in charge.

I’m really proud to be a part of the club, honored to be a Sporting Legend, and I try to come back as much as I possibly can. I have a lot of special memories about Kansas City. It’s like my second home. If my wife hadn’t got a job (in San Francisco), we were going to go back to Kansas City from New York when we were living out there a few years ago. We have so many ties there and so many special relationships—great friends, great stories. If we end up in Kansas City again, I wouldn’t be surprised.