Conde's attitude change no joke

The Chicago Fire's Wilman Conde loves pranks. He especially enjoys dropping teammates into the cold tub on their birthdays.

He can't resist it, he explains; it's in his blood.

"It's definitely a Latino characteristic," said Colombia-born Conde through interpreter Allan Araujo. "It's something that comes through us naturally."

Teammate Patrick Nyarko is his favorite target, but no one is off limits. He has even been known to toy with the Fire's media relations department. It's not out of the ordinary for someone to have to chase down Conde's car to grab him for an interview.

All together, it's pretty good in Conde's world these days. The pranks keep the locker room fun. The team's overall play -- the Fire lead the Eastern Conference -- helps everyone stay happy and loose. Plus, Conde is playing his best soccer. He has proved himself as one of the league's best defenders and, as a result, was selected to the MLS All-Star Team, which will play Everton FC of the English Premier League in Utah on July 29.

A season ago, none of that could be said.

Last season, Conde publicly demanded to be traded from Chicago.

Conde originally came to the Fire late in the 2007 season because of then Chicago coach Juan Carlos Osorio, who had previously managed him with the Millonarios soccer club in Colombia. When Osorio left the Fire to join the New York Red Bulls in December 2007, Conde sought the same departure.

The Fire didn't oblige. The front office knew it had a high-level player in Conde and wasn't about to give him up so easily. It was then Conde went public with his demand.

In February 2008, he sent out this e-mail to reporters: "As you may recall, it was through Juan Carlos Osorio that I came to the MLS, and the Chicago Fire particularly. That is why I want you to know that I wish to continue to work with him and rejoin him with his new team, the New York Red Bulls. The Chicago Fire is a great institution but my interests and desires are no longer with this team. It is a difficult situation but it is my desire to pursue my career with the New York Red Bulls starting this season."

It didn't sit well with many within the Fire organization.

"At the end of the day, listen, you're a professional," Fire coach Denis Hamlett said last season. "You have to honor your contract, and you get paid to perform. It happens all over sports. Guys want to be traded. At the end of the day, it's a business. You just don't grant those wishes because you end up with the players running the show."

Fire veteran C.J. Brown sought out Conde shortly after his e-mail to discuss it.

"We explained to him, 'We understand your problems, and you also have to deal with them,'" Brown said. "He chose to deal with them that way. Some guys weren't very happy with the way he dealt with it, but what's done is done."

The absence of a trade rankled, and a lack of playing time early in the season angered Conde even more. With some teammates unhappy with Conde and Conde unhappy with everything, the situation came to a head when he and Fire star Cuauhtemoc Blanco had to be separated in the locker room.

Conde described the altercation as a small misunderstanding between good friends. It was enough, though, for Hamlett to step in and let everyone know such behavior wouldn't be tolerated. After that, Conde and everyone else seemed to get on better.

"I think that's something that happened in the past," said Hamlett after a recent practice. "We talked about, closed that chapter and moved on from it. He's been a good pro. He's been a guy here that when he steps on the field, it's about one thing, one thing only, which is to win."

Entering the current season, Conde decided things needed to stay that way. Whether he was happy or not with being in Chicago or his contract, he wasn't going to let it affect him. Conde will be paid a base salary of $168,000 this season, according to the MLS Players Union's Web site.

"In the beginning of the year, I thought about my contract, but I then decided to put my problems behind me and focus strictly on soccer and playing well," said Conde, who turns 27 on Aug. 29. "If that cost me a few dollars here and there, eventually I think I will reach my gratification in the future.

"This year, I figured I had to come to work and help the team, and being called up to the All-Star Game is reflection of that."

Everyone's happy with Conde again, too.

"He's a great player," Brown said. "He's by far one of the best defenders in this league. He's just a beast. He's good in the air; he's calm on the ball; he's everything that embodies a defender.

"Playing with Wilman is fun because you know he's going to battle with you, work with you, he's going to win a lot of balls."

Plus, he won't forget your birthday. It's in his blood not to.