As he was walking to the refrigerator in his teammate Dario Brose’s parents’ house, Jimmy Conrad stopped. It was 2001, his third year with the San Jose Earthquakes. He was living there to save money, and his step-father Rob Doty had lost his battle with melanoma a year earlier.
Conrad was a role player, who had worked his way through the fractured U.S. soccer infrastructure and into MLS, but he was making barely $30,000, in the heart of Silicon Valley. His effusive, outsized personality had been poopooed by coaches in the past, and he began to think on life and death and mortality and what it all means. Then, he had an epiphany.
“Sometimes, players have a tendency to get in their own way,” he said. “Stop thinking about it. I was going through a lot of that, at that time, and that’s when the epiphany came. I was like, ‘I get it now.’”
After that moment, Conrad owned his bubbly persona, went on to become a six-time MLS All-Star and an MLS Defender of the Year, earn 28 caps for the US men’s National Team, played in the World Cup and become a YouTube sensation. Having taken an unusual route to success at every level, Conrad was introduced as the San Francisco Glens’ technical director and assistant coach of the club’s USL League 2 team on Thursday.
“I was the little engine that could,” Conrad said. “I really feel like what I can bring to this club, in particular, is someone that’s seen every step. I was not the best player on my club team, but I found a way.”
Soccer, Conrad said, is ultimately “a bunch of grown men in small shorts kicking the ball around,” but it can teach life lessons. His parents had him when they were just 18, and had separated before he was even born. The epiphany he had, heading to his teammate’s parents’ fridge, was that he had to be who he was, in order to show that they made the right choice.
“I knew that the more successful I was, the more people would look back on them favorably, saying, ‘That was a good decision that they made, to keep Jimmy,’ because at 18, they obviously could have had an abortion or put me up for adoption,” Conrad said.
By joining the Glens, Conrad can make a difference in what is still a largely-fractured developmental infrastructure in the United States. What structure there is tends to stifle the creative attacking that makes soccer so exciting on the international level.
Conrad — who has hosted pickup games as large as 300 people, and as far away as Sydney, Australia because of his social media presence — sees a way to change that.
“The former players, we need to trickle back into the system,” Conrad said. “We have so much to offer. We’ve seen so many things. I want to hold myself accountable, get in there and get my hands dirty, and let’s make it happen.”
As the technical director, Conrad will help to oversee the style of play, working with coaches at all levels on the competitive side that leads to the USL League 2 team.
“We have a director on the youth side already, but I expect that there will be some pretty intimate integration there with how they work,” club president J. Ramon Estevez said. “In other countries, there are hundreds of guys like Jimmy that are at these levels and above. In this country, there isn’t. Some of these kids might not know what they need to work on to play at that high level.”
Since moving back to the Bay Area with his wife a year ago, Conrad had been looking for a way to get involved, and the Glens kept coming up. In April, Conrad was running a man-on-the-street video for his YouTube channel (129,666 subscribers) at Kezar Pub, joining the San Francisco soccer-watching public to take in a Champions League quarter final match between Manchester City and Liverpool.
When he walked outside, he saw Mike McNeill — the U13+ Director of Coaching for the SF Glens Evolution, the Glens’ youth development arm. With McNeill were Glens communications director Ryan Maquiñana and Estevez.
“I wrangled [McNeill] in, and everyone else was there — Ryan and Ramon — and they’re like, ‘Hey, you should come to a game!’ I said, ‘Better yet, let me get involved,'” Conrad said.
“Jimmy’s obviously a pretty personable guy,” McNeill said. “He’s pretty popular on social media. Bringing someone on with not just his expertise, but his experience, players know who he is, and when we spoke, it became apparent that the foundation of the club and the youth system was very important to him. That was really appealing for myself, and the board of directors.”
After two seasons at San Diego State, Conrad had walked on as a transfer to UCLA, where he won the College Cup in 1997. In his five-man senior class, he was the only one who went undrafted by Major League Soccer, so, he played with the San Diego Flash of the now-defunct A-League.
In 1999, on a recommendation from Flash coach Ralf Wilhelms, Brian Quinn signed him to the San Jose Clash, who would eventually become the Earthquakes.
The year he came to his epiphany, the Earthquakes won the MLS Cup. Two years later, he was traded to the Kansas City Wizards, where he played in 204 games over seven years and was named a team captain. He helped the Wizards to the US Open Cup and the MLS Cup final in 2004, when he was named to the league’s Best IX and was a finalist for the MLS Defender of the Year award, before winning it a year later.
In 2005, he received his first cap for the men’s national team in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match against Cuba, and in 2006, he made the FIFA World Cup roster.
After his playing career ended in 2011, Conrad spent time working in media, including FOX and KickTV — one of 100 YouTube channels that got funding from YouTube to produce original content. For five years, he lived in New York, and after just three and a half years, KickTV had over one million subscribers. The channel was sold, and he moved back to California, where he noted how the Glens’ full pyramid of over 70 teams and 1,300 players could create a lasting investment in the local soccer community.
It’s that experience and noteriety at all levels of the game that can help Conrad relate to and reach players throughout the Glens system, which includes teams from the micro level — ages five and under — all the way to adult recreational teams and the USL League 2 squad.
Conrad will also assist the top team’s head coach, SF State men’s head coach Javier Ayala-Hill. He has some role models.
“I love Marcelo Bielsa,” Conrad said. “Jurgen Klopp, if I’m going to liken my personality and gregariousness to anybody, I’d just need a pair of glasses and a beard and never shave, a few smiles and fist pumps and we’ll be all set. I’m trying to get his mannerisms down so I can start to mimic him in some ways.”
Conrad will continue his YouTube channel, and will document this season once it starts in May, with hopes of bringing in a partner like Amazon or Netflix. He has ambitions, but so does the club.
Currently occupying the lowest rung of the four-tier soccer system in the U.S., the club has stated that it wants to bring professional, potentially MLS-level soccer to San Francisco.
“We want to play at the highest level,” Estevez said. “The long-term vision, it’s no secret that the club is ambitious about moving up, but it’s step-by-step. We continue to build. I think this is another foundational piece, to have someone like Jimmy be a part of the club.”
“They probably think they’re getting a gem in me — and why not? I have a face for radio, great hair, all that good stuff […] I can’t believe I just said that out loud,” Conrad said. “I’m going to gain more from this experience, because of what they’ve offered and the experience that they have that I don’t have.”