In an extensive interview, Goal.com's Zac Lee Rigg asked Jimmy Conrad about the direction MLS is taking, expansion teams, designated players, his international future, and the Kansas City Wizards' upcoming season.
Internationally, Conrad has 24 caps and has captained the U.S. national team, although he has largely lost his spot, an issue he discussed with Goal.com. Read his thoughts on that, the league's progress, and KC's upcoming season:
Zac Lee Rigg: With the Collective Bargaining Agreement up for renewal this year, what are the main issues the players want addressed?
Jimmy Conrad: Basically we're just looking, as a group, and this goes for any union in any line of work, just for respect from the other side. That would be goal number one. What we're arguing and what we're fighting for, ultimately, is for respect and fairness, and an acknowledgement from the other side that some of the things in place aren't fair. It's just a matter of finding a happy medium that is fair not only to the players, but to both sides. Both parties need to get something worthwhile out of it, and ultimately that's the goal. To have a good line of communication and to make sure that everyone's on the same page. I think what gets lost in any kind of agreement or any kind of labor talk is that we all want the same thing. Everyone wants the sport to grow; everybody benefits with how much better the soccer gets here, on all fronts, weather it's in the front office, or whether it's on the field, or whether it's the high ups making the decision. We all want the same thing. We want this to be a great league. At the end of the day, if everyone has that in their hearts when they're speaking, I'm sure we'll get stuff resolved, and hopefully everyone will become better for it.
You've been in this league a while now, what are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the day to day operations, since you started playing?
It's been a lot of things. I think the professionalism has definitely stepped up in the last four or five years. I guess to maybe even sidestep that, I think there are more of clear goals about what we're trying to do as a league, and I think that's been the biggest difference for me, from when I first started to now.
What are those goals?
To have our own stadiums, to make sure we have control. We're not renting; we're not on anybody else's dime anymore. We're not having to share anything with anyone else. We're running our own show. Once we have that in place—which we're still working on, obviously—then we can control all the revenues, all the stuff that's coming in. We can control all the stadiums, we can control the TV contracts, we can set up our own schedule. That's beneficial to us, and not the NFL or Major League Baseball, or whatever it may be, whatever venue we're sharing. Over the last four or five years that's become more clear, that that's one thing we want to attack.
Now it's about the youth academies and making sure that we're identifying players at a younger age, which is very exciting on a lot of fronts, because now we can start really taking advantage of developing these kids.
And then, the designated player rule: that's exciting. Just being a little bit more flexible and a little more forward thinking about how we can make this league grow. The league has taken tremendous strides in that.
I think they've been very smart in the cities they've expanded to. Moving San Jose to Houston at the time. Houston's embraced the team there, obviously it helps to win championships, no doubt. But they put on a good product, they put on a good show, and people come out to support them. We've got Toronto which is probably the leading example of what we're trying to build here in North America. You have Seattle now with 20,000 season tickets. Everything's very exciting: the franchise fees we can get for expansion teams, and then the TV contracts that follow. There's always going to be room for improvement, but all these things are very exciting. I just feel like as each of these pieces came in, it gave us a better idea of where we're going, where we're headed, and where we need to continue to grow.
With all these expansion teams, are you at all worried that the talent pool might get stretched a bit thin?
Yeah, that's the opposing argument to expanding too quickly. This year we've cut down our roster size, so those guys that were at the end, will have a chance maybe to hook up with another team, and hopefully prove that they deserve to be in MLS. That's going to create more opportunity for young American players. There's another Canadian team in, so they're going to have their own pipeline of Canadian talent they can go through there in Vancouver. It's just another outlet, and it's something I sort of touched upon with the youth academies. When we start identifying younger talent, then maybe we get these kids playing at 18, 19 for their club teams in their hometowns, as opposed to them going to college. We could argue there is something beneficial about the kids that do go to college and learn how to mature and become adults, but the flip side is we'll still be behind Europe if we don't start getting our 17- and 18-year-olds playing in a professional environment. Hopefully that will come along with them being surrounded by people who care about their best interest, and helping them with the day to day, and giving them a semi-college experience. So that's another facet expansion gives us, and hopefully we'll end up seeing a lot more of our younger players performing at a higher level at a younger age.
You mentioned designated players earlier, so I've got to ask the obligatory David Beckham question. What has been the best and the worst aspects to come out of his situation?
I think the best part is him coming over the league, and committing himself and his time to making people in this country more aware that there's a league here. It's not as easy as people think it is. It's hard to have success. You can't just come over and be David Beckham and expect to win trophies year in and year out. For that, I think it's decent exposure. What's that they say? Any publicity is good publicity, whether positive or negative.
I guess for me, I wish they had thought out the Milan thing a little bit better. It's one thing to have negative publicity, but to continue to have negative publicity over an extended period of time isn't good either. It was unresolved for a long time, which was disappointing. Anytime that it looks like there's gray area or we made the wrong decision, I'm not a big fan of that, because I obviously want MLS to appear in the best light. That would be the kind of thing that wasn't handled right, on all sides: Beckham, A.C. Milan, MLS, everybody involved. It just didn't come off the way we wanted it to. That being said, they came down to a decision and now everything's smelling like roses again. Hopefully we'll come to a nice happy conclusion and go from there.
However, outside of Beckham, I think the designated player rule has been fantastic. Blanco's been a great addition to the league. From what I understand from my friends in Chicago, he's a great guy to have in the locker room, a great leader, and he takes what he does very very seriously. For me that was a big surprise, I thought he'd just smoke a cigarette, walk around the park, and collect a paycheck. I was pleasantly surprised when he came in and he cared. He wanted to do the same thing that Beckham did, just for a different audience, for the Latin audience. He's been a pleasant surprise. Then I think Juan Pablo Angel has been great. He's another good guy, a good role model for the players on his team and for other guys around the league. He's very serious about what he does, he's very passionate, and he's a great player. There's been some DP hits and misses, but the guys who have been hits have been very very good. Hopefully Freddie Ljungberg will be the next guy that's going to be a big hit in Seattle. We'll go from there. It's exciting that they've opened that up, an allowed the owners to flex their pocketbooks a little bit.
You were involved in the national team in 2005 and 2006. Have you been surprised at all that you haven't been involved in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup?
Not necessarily. I've had quite a few lengthy conversations with Bob Bradley. Good, bad, or indifferent, they are what they are. He has an idea for his team, and you'd have to ask him about that. From my standpoint, he knows what I'm capable of and I've proven that, so if he needs me, then he knows I'm ready. Any time you represent your country it's always an honor. I'd never say no to an opportunity, but I haven't spoken to him for a while. Our relationship is fine, it just is what it is. I wish I could give you more, but it's probably best left at that.
Let's talk about who you are playing for then. What are the Kansas City Wizards' goals for this upcoming year?
Obviously, we don't step on the field, we don't attack preseason and the regular season, or approach each game without thinking we can win the championship. I know that's cliché, but you don't give everything you have if that's not the end goal. For us, and for every other team in MLS, the goal is the same. First things first, you have to put yourself in a position to make that happen. What we're aiming to do is be first or second in our conference and try to host that conference championship game. We have a lot of confidence in our little fortress that is known as Community America Ballpark. I think that word has gotten out that it's a tough place to come in and play. We want to make sure we put our stamp on it come playoff time, and ultimately that's our goal.
Another goal, we are excited about being part of SuperLiga this year. Hopefully we can have an opportunity not to just represent ourselves, but the league, and have a good showing at SuperLiga. Hopefully that success can parle into something else down the line, maybe getting into the CONCACAF Champions League. So we have goals, but we can talk talk talk, but we have to actually go out there and walk the walk. Or whatever the cliché is. The guys know what we have to do, it's very clear to us how we're going to have to find success, and now we just have to go out there and execute it. That's the hard part.
One guy whose shown tremendous dedication to the team and the league by taking a massive pay cut is Claudio Lopez. Has his attitude been any different since he's been back this year?
No, absolutely not. I consider myself a pretty good professional, but that guy has a lot of class. Even last year when he wasn't starting for us, never did his demeanor change. Yeah, you could tell he was a little frustrated sometimes, but he never treated anyone any different. He never disrespected the coaches or any of the players, regardless of age or experience. Claudio Lopez is a great example of how to handle yourself in adversity. He definitely enjoys being here, though he was probably a little disappointed with how the season went for himself personally last year. I think signing for whatever number he signed for was a chance for him to prove that he's still got more than what he showed. As his teammate, he's a real class guy, and I'm glad he's on my team.
Kansas City have a bit of an odd setup in that most of the experience is toward the front and there's more youth in the defense. What's the thinking behind that?
You'd have to ask Curt Onalfo that one for the specifics, but from what I can see, over the last couple years when they were drafting, they were just drafting the best available players. They drafted guys who could replace starters, and maybe some of those younger guys did it sooner than expected. That's just how our team is panning out. I know when Curt first got here we had Jack Jewsbury slated to play rightback for us for the next 10 years. As it turns out, they learned that his strengths are probably best suited to us as a defensive midfielder. You make those adjustments when you come in. You have an idea for the team, but you try to plug holes and build for the future as well as making sure we have a steady core in place to win games and potentially be a team that's solid year in and year out. We've made the playoffs two years in a row, so we're not too far away. Even in the Columbus series last year, we saw four or five players go off along the way, and then we're maybe talking a different situation of what happened last year. That's the way it goes, that's the game.
I just think Curt came in and he assessed what he had. He had an idea on paper, and then when we got out there and played, some guys just worked together better than others. We have a philosophy of having a steady core, and having some young guys to bring along, and he's done a steady job at that. This year, these young guys you're referring to have experience. They shouldn't be surprised about things coming their way. Now it's just, the experience they've gained in the last couple year, how can we use that to make us even better, even sharper?
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