KANSAS CITY, Mo. – This time four years ago, Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad was packing his bags to join the US National Team as they left for the 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany. This year, however, the veteran center back didn’t make Bob Bradley’s roster after playing with the US throughout the four-year cycle.
MLSsoccer.com had a chance to talk to Conrad about what he remembered most from the US’ showing in 2006, and the long odds he faced fighting his way onto the roster for that tournament only a year after getting his first cap.
MLSsoccer.com: You got your first cap about a year before Germany 2006. Was that a whirlwind process for you?
Conrad: The whole process was pretty incredible. I think I got close to 13 or 14 caps before I made World Cup team, so I had played a few games.
I know I was always on the fringe of that stuff, but I had strung together a lot of performances that I thought could make a good case for me. What helped was the Gold Cup the year before, where you are in a tournament situation, have to play a game every couple days and show your professionalism, your attitude and how you can boost the guys on the team.
My first cap came in the Gold Cup. Two days after my first game, I played the second half because Eddie Pope got hurt. To keep myself motivated for that game – because I didn’t think I was really going to come on – I thought, “What if Bruce [Arena] needs me in the World Cup in this situation?” Funny enough, that’s what happened. I ended up playing in all six games and we won the tournament.
I had had a good frame of mind about the whole situation. I was hopeful that I could make a difference. At that point, with only one or two caps in, I didn’t really have World Cup aspirations. I just wanted another cap. After the Gold Cup was over, it was, “Can I get called in for the qualifiers?” I did, I had a good January camp and it just kind of just bled into being a part of the team and getting to play.
MLSsoccer.com: What did you take away from the World Cup in 2006, both in terms of your career and personally? Obviously that’s a life-changing experience in every sense of the phrase.
Conrad: Professionally, I learned that there’s such a thin line between success and failure at the World Cup level. In 2006, against Ghana, we just couldn’t take care of business. In that game, it was just a few plays that made the difference. If Claudio [Reyna] doesn’t lose that ball in front of box, and if they don’t call a dubious PK against [Oguchi Onyewu] right before halftime, we’re talking about a whole different situation.
Maybe we would have won and gone on to play Brazil, who is kind of falling apart at that point in the tournament, and then maybe we could have done something. It’s just crazy how thin that line is and how you look at your team and your program for the next four years because of a couple of plays.
From a personal standpoint, it was the most incredible thing that I have ever been a part of. To be able to play was amazing. I actually came on in the game against Italy. It was Father’s Day and my dad was there. My wife came, my whole family came. To be able to share those experiences with them was great instead of just coming home and telling them stories. They actually got to feel it, taste it and enjoy it with me.
I know a lot of fans, and maybe even some players, who look back on the 2006 World Cup in a bad way. But I had the greatest time. I had a blast. Obviously, I was disappointed about our performance overall, but outside the Czech game and a couple of plays against Ghana, I don’t think we were too far off from where we wanted to be. That’s just the way goes, and you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get after it again.
Of course, you have to wait four years to do that. I’m really excited to see how this year’s World Cup goes and I think the US have a good, solid set of guys. Hopefully, they can do the business to continue growing soccer in this country.
MLSsoccer.com: Talking about Italy, what were you feeling before you came on, after you got on the field and then after you stuck with them and earned a result?
Conrad: It was incredible. I had actually eaten a Gatorade bar at halftime just thinking, “With the way the game’s going, we’re both a man down at 10 guys and maybe one of our defenders gets tired and I can come on with 10 minutes to go. I’m just going to eat this and make sure I have a little more energy in those moments.” If you sit on the bench, your pregame meal is so much longer than everyone who is on the field, so you get a little bit hungry.
I had probably just finished the last bite when Eddie Pope got that red card a couple of minutes into the second half, when I was told to get up, I’ve never had an adrenaline rush like that before. You just find the energy and make it work. I was buzzing. I don’t think I have ever run or done a warm-up so fast in my life! I wanted to get in there as fast as I could to help the team.
The game was great. We made some good plays, Kasey [Keller] made some good saves, and we kept the result. It was an amazing experience, and I think now it will be the real highlight for me in my career. Just coming on and helping the team secure the result so we could have a chance in the last game. To do it in front of a lot of my friends and family – a lot of whom were leaving after that game because they just couldn’t afford to stay much longer – was awesome.
I got on the phone with my parents and my wife after the game, and everyone was really excited, emotional and all that stuff, because of all the hard work I had done to get that opportunity. They had seen it first-hand and had obviously been with me through the ups and downs. For them to see me go out there and perform admirably, to share that with the people who had seen it all, was a big thrill for me.
Look for more World Cup memories at MLSsoccer.com from Kansas City's Josh Wolff and manager Peter Vermes before June 11.