Comparable pair leads K.C. defense

One's favorite food is cereal, the other prefers Chinese. One's favorite music is techno, the other prefers post-apocalyptic cyber punk. One drives a 1961 Ford Falcon he restored himself, the other an Infiniti FX 35. Even the teams they support out outside of their own club differ as one pulls for Newcastle United and the other Manchester United. Yet, between the lines of a soccer pitch, the two orchestrate their maneuvers as one entity.

Pals on and off the field, Kansas City Wizards center backs Nick Garcia and Jimmy Conrad, who are not as different as they initially may seem, are endeavoring to make the club's defense the consistent fortress it was last season.

According to Garcia, their similarities, and their successes, begin back in college.

"I played sweeper, Jimmy played a marking back. We both won some championships with our college teams," said Garcia. "So it started there with a winning attitude, a winning mentality, and being around winners in good situations. We've always put ourselves in good situations, and I think we've been around good players and good coaches."

After winning two national championships with the Hoosiers, to Conrad's earned while at UCLA, Garcia was drafted second overall by the Wizards in the 2000 SuperDraft and proceeded on to further glory starting for a Wizards team that went on to win MLS Cup that season. Three years and one MLS title later, Conrad moved to the Wizards after being traded by the San Jose Earthquakes for a second-round draft pick in the 2003 SuperDraft.

Vying for time in the same part of the field, Conrad and Garcia did not immediately hit it off.

"My first year was a little different. I just got traded here and this was kind of his turf. So there was a little bit of friction there to start," said the 28-year-old Conrad. "It was just a feeling out process on what position everyone was going to play. The beginning of last year was when we really just kind of became buddies."

Humor, shared hobbies, and an appreciation for their differences may have been the catalyst to their bonding.

"Of the guys in the locker room, I'd say we're probably the two biggest pranksters. Whether it's putting stuff up on our Wall of Shame, pictures, comments, otherwise, stuff like that. We all give it and get it. I think that's a good thing," said Garcia. "Jimmy and I love to play cards whether it's poker, hearts, spades or otherwise. Jimmy's a little bit of a freak when it comes to dressing up. I like to think that I'm a little bit more of your conservative, casual guy where Jimmy is wearing red pants and pink shirts."

But it wasn't until midway through the 2004 season that the duo teamed in the middle of the back line.

Having been shredded by the speed and skill of Landon Donovan for two goals at home in a 2-0 loss to the Earthquakes on Aug. 28, the Wizards saw a need for change. Coach Bob Gansler moved then right back Garcia inside to pair with Conrad. The arrangement paid immediate dividends as the pair helped shut out Donovan and the Quakes 10 days later in a 1-0 U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory.

The innate similarities in their games made the adjustment quick and made them natural complements.

"I think it has been natural. We have had to work on it a little bit as far as getting to know each other, but I think, for the most part, it's been pretty effortless," Garcia said.

"We're both very tenacious. We take a lot of pride in our defense and not getting beat and making it as difficult as possible for the attacking players. We feed off each other," Conrad said. "Maybe one of us makes a good play -- the other is ready to make the next good play. If one of us does get beat, we're very good at covering for the other guy."

Having each other's back is imperative for any duo, perhaps only falling second to being able to guide each other and those around. Garcia and Conrad both excel at in-game communication with teammates while Garcia likes to spread his talk, both vocal and physical, to others -- the first of many differences that combine to make the two U.S. national team pool players a virtually unbeatable tandem.

"Nick is going to do whatever he has to do to either get into your head or just to be a pain in the ...," said Conrad. "I appreciate being on his team so I don't have to deal with him. He's very good at that, and I don't think there's a forward in the league who doesn't think, 'Oh man, Nick Garcia.'

"I think I was a little more similar to Nick couple years ago," he added. "Now that I have Nick on my team, I can let him do that stuff, and I can balance it out by organizing and getting everybody in the right spots. We have a good relationship that way."

Said Garcia: "Jimmy's [strength is] aerial combativeness, his ability to go forward on set pieces. My ability to handle the quick, crafty guy is something I do a little bit better than Jimmy. But I don't think the plusses or the minuses are a knock on either one of us. It's us complementing each other; [it] maximizes [our effectiveness]."

Conrad, being the writer and the crossword fanatic, has a term for the type of defense he, Garcia, and their fullbacks have forged.

"I call it the amoeba defense, we're just all over you," he said.

Garcia and Conrad will continue to refine their partnership on the field Saturday in San Jose, fine-tuning a defensive unit that has uncharacteristically given up two goals in their first two matches this season. One can bet they will once again use their varying abilities to achieve a common success.

Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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