From a scrawny kid walking onto the UCLA team in college to a veteran trying to leave his mark on the game, Jimmy Conrad's come a long, unlikely, way.
"I think I'm 12, no 13 pounds heavier than I was in high school but I'm essentially the same scrawny kid who's trying to make the most out of his scrawny body," the Kansas City Wizards centerback told Goal.com over the phone Thursday afternoon.
That scrawny body has taken the California native to the highest levels of his sport. He's about to begin his 12th season in Major League Soccer and was the Defender of the Year in 2005. He earned two caps for the United States Men's National Team during the 2006 World Cup and captained the 2009 Gold Cup side. Not bad for a guy who walked on to UCLA's team.
Conrad, who turns 33 on Friday, is in the running to make Bob Bradley's 23-man roster for the 2010 World Cup. Last month, he participated in what he anticipates will be his last January training camp and started against Honduras. The match didn't go well for the defender, as he was sent off in the 17th minute after picking up his second yellow card.
Although Conrad admits Mexican referee Benito Archundia was well within his right to reach for both cautions, the player thinks the judgment was a bit harsh, especially on the second considering Jerry Palacios -- the Catrachos striker who went down -- was show a yellow for diving just eight minutes prior.
"There's just no way I could pull down a 200-pound man with just one hand on his bicep," he said. (There's that scrawny thing again.)
Following the ejection, cries from all corners of the country (including here) claimed his international career was over.
Conrad has heard it all before.
"The things people say about me -- I'm old, I'm slow, and whatever -- I've heard that same stuff since I was 16," he said. "It's funny that those are the same two or three things that I always hear. It's the same things people were saying about me for the '06 World Cup. I don't mind proving it again, but it's just funny how it all plays out."
Assuming they are healthy, three centerbacks -- Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, and Oguchi Onyewu -- are locks for South Africa, but there's room for another one on the plane. Conrad's fighting for a place with Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson. If Bradley does choose the veteran, his experience in Germany and leadership ability could be the reason why.
"I'm trying to be a good leader," Conrad said. "Whether I'm starting or not starting, just be the guy that the other guys can count on not to be arguing with the coaching staff, not to be a whiner or somebody that's a squeaky wheel. When I did get a chance to step on the field and perform at a level that was the standard Bob was looking for, outside of the Honduras game I think I did okay. Even when I played, I think I did fine."
While the future may hold a trip to South Africa, the present requires the Wizards captain to focus on two separate issues. He and his club teammates are currently in Phoenix participating in preseason, continuing to learn the system head coach Peter Vermes installed after taking over for Curt Onalfo in mid-season last year. Additionally, Conrad serves on the executive board of the players' union and is in the middle of the labor negotiations. It's a role he relishes.
"It's fun to be a part of something, to affect some positive change from a players' perspective," he said. "People might not remember my name down the line, and I'm totally okay with that, but knowing I put something in place that's going to benefit players in a positive way once I leave the league and fade out into the sunset, I'll feel good about what I contributed to the league."
Conrad, who'd like to go into coaching when he hangs up his cleats, spends time thinking about the future of MLS. Never one to hold his tongue, he offered some thoughts on the state of the league in November's illuminating ESPN piece. Readers inundated his email inbox with thoughts, critiques, and suggestions, prompting another column a month later. While he's letting the fans know what he believes, he also feels it's important to play the role of elder statesman for the league's young contingent.
"I'm one of the guys who's been around the longest so that gives me some added weigh to really let especially the younger guys know [how] it used to be," Conrad said. "How it is now is 10 times better or 100 times better than it used to be, but there are some fundamental things that need to change for this to really grow the way it should."
The four-time MLS Best XI member is leaving his mark on the domestic league. Whether he makes the '10 World Cup squad remains to be seen, but he's already made a difference on the National Team.
That scrawny kid has made good.
Noah Davis covers the United States Men's National Team for Goal.com and will be reporting from South Africa during the World Cup.
Visit the U.S. national team page on Goal.com for more