KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A year ago, Jimmy Conrad was being recognized for the first time in his Major League Soccer career when he was selected as a reserve for the Western Conference All-Star team for his toil at the center of the Kansas City Wizards back line.
Ever since then, Conrad's rise toward becoming one of the most widely respected players in the league has been a classic tale of what playing in MLS has done for numerous soccer players and their national teams.
"All the sudden, people have discovered Jimmy Conrad. He has been here since 2003, and he has been an All-Star in my book and he has been a national team candidate in my book since he got here," said Wizards coach Bob Gansler. "Sometimes it doesn't happen for you because other people have a different timetable. But that's all right. He's been persistent; he's the kind of guy who comes out every day and says, 'Yep, I'm going to get a little bit better.' And he works at it."
Conrad has been making the most of his career ever since he came to Kansas City in 2003 via a draft day trade following a strong four-year start in San Jose. As the Wizards made their way to a U.S. Open Cup title and a berth in MLS Cup 2004 with the team's defense as its considerable back bone, Conrad's stock continued to ascend as he was chosen as a finalist for the MLS Defender of the Year and as a member of the MLS Best XI side.
Soon thereafter a step toward reaching the pinnacle in a soccer player's life came as U.S. national team manager Bruce Arena came calling. After being selected to travel with the team - but not dress - for the USA's first match in the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a 2-1 win at Trinidad and Tobago on Feb. 9, Conrad said he was confident he would get a chance to show his wares again.
But over four months is a long time to wait to continue one's trek for a first - and likely last - chance at earning a spot on a national team's roster for a playing appearance, let alone a World Cup roster spot.
Yet the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup has been Conrad's gold mine. Three national team caps in successive group games plus some love from his peers and superiors in MLS have made for a heady 10 days for the patient 28-year-old.
"It's kind of come all at once," said Conrad, who made his first national team appearance and start in the first match on July 6 against Cuba as he was handed the responsibility of anchoring the defensive line from the heart of the U.S.'s three-man back line.
"The first cap felt great. I've been patiently waiting for that opportunity for a long time and I think this was a good event for me to start in," he said. "Obviously we were supposed to beat Cuba, so it was a good one for me to come in and do my thing. We had to score a couple goals late to take that one, so it was exciting. When I was walking off the field, I just really didn't want to leave. I wanted to soak it up and enjoy the moment."
Conrad's moments in the sun, and under the microscope of Arena, continued with the next two group matches as he played the second half vs. Canada and marshaled the defense to its second shutout in succession against Costa Rica in the 0-0 tie that gained the U.S. the top spot in their group. He then played the full 90 minutes in the USA's quarterfinal victory against Jamaica. Speaking to ussoccer.com, Arena gave Conrad kudos on his play.
"Jimmy Conrad has been a pleasant surprise. I think in the early going in training camp he wasn't at his best - perhaps a little bit nervous. But as he's settled in with the group he's gotten better and better each day," Arena said. "His game against Costa Rica was excellent. The 45 minutes he gave us against Canada was very good, and he had a good solid 90 minutes against Cuba. He's a player who has definitely moved himself up in the depth chart in terms of defenders."
Next up for the USA is a match against Honduras on Thursday; a victory would put the USA in the final against either Panama or Colombia as they strive for a third title in the eighth edition of the continental championship.
"My main job is to organize, to put everybody in good spots to make plays. The thing that Bruce [Arena] repeats day-in and day-out is the fact that we want to keep a high line and play in their side of the field and make it as difficult as possible for them to have any time to play and to create turnovers and to make it happen," Conrad said. "A lot of that is predicated upon where our center backs are standing. Outside of that, it's making plays when I need to make them."
In addition, Conrad's play over the first half of the 2005 season earned him another accolade when he was selected as an MLS All-Star starter for the July 30 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star game against Fulham FC as a result of voting by fans, league coaches, general managers, players and the media.
"It's a real honor to be starting for the All-Star team. It caught me off guard - it was a pleasant surprise," he said, alluding to the fact that he was well behind the other defenders in the league at the end of the fan voting.
"I've been working hard for a long time, and I guess my peers feel the same way. I didn't get much fan love, so it's really an honor to be recognized by my peers. I appreciate the fans who voted for me. Hopefully I can change the minds of the people who didn't."
For one who has been blessed physically and in his experiences, Conrad's strong mind and his drive and desire to excel are perhaps what will make the difference in his career no matter what turn it takes next.
"There is a lot of time before the big dance (the 2006 World Cup). I think everyday that I have an opportunity to be [in national team camp] is another day to make an impression on the coaches," said Conrad. "We could argue it could work for or against you. I don't take anything for granted, I go out there, work hard, do the best that I can, and just see what happens."
Robert Rusert is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.