Lord Jim

He'd blush at the term - or, more likely, embrace it ironically - but one of Major League Soccer's icons retired this week.  Jimmy Conrad was probably the league's top defender in the 00's, something that if anything got lost between the unglamorousness of his position and the man's considerable charm and intelligence.  Conrad became a MLS star and fan favorite, despite being undrafted in the 1998 Not-Yet-Superdraft.  (In fairness, that was a pretty good draft year.  Clint Mathis, Chris Klein, Pablo Mastroeni, Tyrone Marshall, Carey Talley.  Leo Cullen wasn't the worst overall #1 pick ever, either, not by a country mile.)  Conrad joined the A-League's late, great San Diego Flash, along with fellow undraftee Joe Cannon.  (Yes, Conrad AND Cannon were left on the shelf.  No draft is THAT good.) 

The San Jose Clash took note, and made probably their first good decisions ever in bringing Cannon and Conrad onto the team for the '99 season.  After a brief adjustment period - okay, after two more seasons of futility - Conrad helped lead the team to the MLS Cup championship in 2001.

Okay, well, Ekelund, Agoos, Mulrooney, Corrales and Cerritos probably had something to do with it, as well as the supersub heroics of Dwayne DeRosario and the occasional flashes of brilliance from a young phenom from Redlands, Ephialtes of Trachis. 

The next season, however, Conrad truly came into his own, highlighted with legendary battles against Galaxy antichrist Carlos Ruiz.  Even without the help of Sports Illustrated, Conrad was becoming one of the most popular and effective defenders in the league.

And then before the 2003 season, the Earthquakes stupidly traded him.  They got a second round draft pick for him, which turned into Arturo Alvarez.  Not the worst pick in history, but not precisely someone for whom you trade away a future multi-season Best XI defender, either.  San Jose flourished in the short run, moved to Houston in the long run, so perhaps the only thing the trade prevented was a couple of more stars imported onto the Houston 1836 badge.

Jimmy did not immediately embrace the move, although he didn't embrace it hilariously.  He probably had little idea that he would become perhaps the most beloved Wizard of all, including Preki and Klein.   

He never won an MLS Cup for Kansas City, though the Wizards came awfully close in 2004 - with a team that for my money was much better, certainly more enjoyable, than the 2000 double winners.  The Wizards stagnated after that game, mostly because of an inability to find forwards to match the quality in the back. 

While his club stalled out, his national team career began.  The solid reliability he brought to his club translated perfectly in international play, which doesn't exactly happen every day with MLS players.  So trustworthy and effective was Conrad, in fact, that he carried the armband a few times on the way to making the 2006 World Cup roster.  A South African online World Cup preview called Conrad an up-and-coming young star, or words to that effect.  (Swear to God - I even posted about it here, and can't for the life of me find it in the archives.)

Someone covering soccer in South Africa is a psychic.  Others might say his best international moment was scoring against Mexico in 2007, but in 2006, the man came off the bench and helped hold the line against the future world champions.  Italy was a man up for the entire second half, you recall.  Forgive me for repeating myself, but Jimmy Conrad had a better game against Italy than Zinedine Zidane.

One of the things Conrad gets surprisingly little credit for was his toughness.  Maybe we take it for granted in an All-Star defender.  But in 2006, Clint Dempsey broke Jimmy Conrad's jaw, a stunt that got Dempsey suspended for four matches and saw Conrad's jaw wired shut.  Conrad finished the game.  In 2007 against Columbus, Conrad broke his jaw again - and finished that game, too.  Even by the physical standards of MLS, that's serious iron.

It's not as if we've seen the last of Jimmy Conrad by any means - like his new boss Robin Fraser, even Chivas Siberia won't keep him down for too long.  We won't see his like again anytime soon - in fact, we may not see the like of someone who gives "Return of the Jedi" a better rating than "Taxi Driver" ever again.  (Yes, that post is credited to jc.com staff.  No freaking excuse.)  (Actually, the quote used in the entry is actually from "Empire," so maybe jc.com staff just used the wrong picture.  Giving "Empire" a slightly better rating than "Taxi Driver" is much less controversial, although I expect a robust flame war in comments on this topic.)

Conrad might be forgiven for thinking that the universe is messing with him - of all the possible cover stories for the local alternative LA Weekly to run, they chose this week to cover athlete concussions.  As you might expect, the conclusion is not "shake it off and get back on the field, you pansy."  This was clearly a hugely painful decision for Conrad, but it was equally clearly the right one.