Jimmy Conrad's first day on the field with his new team reminded him of 2001. That's a good thing.
The Chivas USA center back, among nearly three dozen players put through the paces as new coach Robin Fraser and his staff opened preseason training Friday with drills designed to gauge fitness, is the most prominent veteran addition to a Goats side that is reinventing itself following a last-place finish last year in the Western Conference.
Fraser has been part of such a rebuild before, on Jason Kreis' staff as Real Salt Lake transformed from Major League Soccer from doormat to champion in three years, and so has Conrad.
The defender from Temple City (Temple City HS/UCLA) was a third-year defender in San Jose a decade ago as the Earthquakes began a new era following a worst-in-the-league finish in 2000.
The Quakes had a new coach -- former pro defender Frank Yallop, who had done fine work as an assistant coach at D.C. United -- and three new veteran presences, from U.S. national team defender Jeff Agoos, winger Manny Lagos and Danish midfielder Ronnie Ekelund.
“I liken [Chivas USA today] to 2001,” said Conrad, who was acquired from Sporting Kansas City in last month's re-entry draft. “We had some older players mixed with some younger guys -- there were me, Joe Cannon, Wade Barrett, Richard Mulrooney, and we picked up Landon [Donovan] -- and then we had Agoos and [veteran defender] Troy Dayak and Ekelund and Manny Lagos.
“And we had Frank Yallop, who's very similar to Robin. For whatever reason, there just seems to be some of the same parallels.”
Reason for hope? Well, the Earthquakes won the MLS Cup title in 2001, beating the Galaxy in the final -- the first of four league championships in seven years by the Quakes/Houston Dynamo.
Fraser, like Yallop then, is in his first head-coaching assignment. Conrad, who trained with Fraser and assistant coach Greg Vanney during offseasons when they were still playing, believes Chivas made the right move, as the Quakes did a decade ago.
“I remember when [the Earthquakes] were looking for a coach, I just thought that we needed somebody that was just as hungry as the players on the team ...,” Conrad said. “They delivered it with Frank Yallop. Here, the same kind of questions were being asked, and I really feel like Robin Fraser is an inspired choice. It's someone who can lead us and is just as hungry as the rest of the team.”
BORN LEADER: Conrad, 37, brings to Chivas leadership capabilities absent since Jesse Marsch's and Claudio Suarez's retirements and Carey Talley's departure following the 2009 campaign. It might have been the most severe of the Goats' many weaknesses last year.
“I know we have some young players already on the roster, and we drafted a few more,” Conrad said. “One of the thing that I'll provide is experience. Just putting out fires before they start. I think that's what I've learned.
“My first year in the league [1999 in San Jose], I played with [Scottish defender] Richard Gough, who was a legend, and that was one of the things he told me: How can you put out fires before they start, how can you put yourself into positions to make plays before they actually exist.
“That's some of the same kind of wisdom I'm going to impart to the young guys. The better we are doing that individually and collectively, the better defense we're going to have.”
Conrad is the obvious front-runner to be captain, but he says whether or not he has the title, “I'm going to be an extension of [Fraser and Vanney] and the coaching staff. I feel I have a pretty good idea of what they want to see on the field. I know it's only day one, but I feel like I've known them for so long, and I've heard them talk about the game for so long, I have a very good idea -- probably through osmosis -- what they want to see and how we want to play.”
Said Fraser, when asked if Conrad would be his captain: “It's day one. I don't know the whole team yet. … I think Jimmy Conrad is a wonderful leader and a very positive influence on any group of players, much less a young group of player that is learning how to train.”
FIRST STEPS: Fraser is looking to implement a system of play that relies heavily on team harmony, and the first week or two on the field are critical to its development. Just not as you might expect.
“In terms of a style of play,” Fraser said, “it really starts with a work ethic that begins in training, and it's learning how to train, and I think that's a starting point for any new culture that you're getting hold of. I have no idea what happened in the past here -- could have been great, could have been bad; I have no idea -- but I know what I think is necessary to be successful, and it's a culture that is created and cultivated every single day in training.
“And from that foundation you can then go on to build the things you want. But the starting point, without a doubt, is the team learning how to train, learning how to push themselves, learning how to be extremely professional in every aspect of their approach to the game. Once you've got that in place, then you've got pieces to work with.”
GOALS GALORE: First-round draft choice Victor Estupiñan, a 22-year-old Ecuadoran forward, is ready to pick up Chivas USA's scoring slack. He said as much on Tiro Libre, MLS's Spanish-language Web site's podcast.
“In Ecuador, I was one of the top scorers every year,” he said. “I am really anxious to score 25 to 30 goals and much more. I have lots of confidence in myself that it’s going to go well for me [with Chivas USA] and that I can debut with goals.”
Fraser laughed when asked about it Friday.
“What can you say about the bravado of youth, right?” the coach said. “I'm sure Victor has a lot of learning to do. He's young, he's brash, he's an exciting player, he has a lot of good qualities, and it will be a learning process for him. … But I think he's got some special ability and should be all right.”