Photo by Michael Janosz/ISIphotos.com
By DAVE MARTINEZ
Just months ago, New York Red Bulls centerback Wilman Conde stood on the brink of recovery without a club to call his own. Ushered out of Mexican Primera side Atlas and fresh off rehabilitation from surgery to his left instep, the former Chicago Fire and MLS Best XI defender was in search of a new opportunity.
The oft-criticized Major League Soccer calendar and a pending opening at one of the league's star-studded franchises offered him a fitting alternative.
"The option to come (back to MLS) stemmed from that; that the preseason was a bit longer," Conde pointed out. "The season starts mid-March so it gave me the time to recuperate."
When the search began for a team, the Red Bulls became a likely destination. The Red Bulls were on the brink of selling their second-year starter Tim Ream to Bolton. Their coach, Hans Backe, had long set the goal of adding a physical defender to shore up his porous backline.
It was a perfect fit for both parties.
"Truthfully, I am very happy, very motivated being here with the team," Conde said. "I've been received very well by both the coaching staff and the team alike. I have many expectations and a desire to do well this year."
Conde's journey to New York and back to MLS has been a winding one, and it is one that Red Bulls management is hoping provides a return on a hefty investment. In order to receive Conde's services, the club had to part ways with a sizeable allocation to pry his MLS rights from the fire.
If Conde can find his past form, then it will be money well spent.
Coming off of a successful four-season stint with the Fire in 2010, doors began to open for the bruising defender. After flirtations with Puebla FC fell through, Atlas presented a unique opportunity to receive consistent playing time at a competitive salary in a respected league.
He made an early impression with his club, scoring a goal in his very first appearance and featuring steadily on the team's backline. Conde was beginning to receive interest from the Colombian national team when a training injury put a temporary halt to his career.
"It was very frustrating," he explained. "I would have liked to stay there, perhaps another year, because the options coming from bigger clubs was also important for me and my career."
His lengthy recovery period put him at a disadvantage when fighting for a roster spot at Atlas ahead of the Clausura season but helped set the wheels in motion for his return to MLS.
Atlas has been in crisis mode. Having finished the Apertura tournament dead last, the team underwent a midseason coaching change, and their directors began putting on the pressure for an immediate improvement in play.
Conde, who had been inactive since April of last year, was still hindered by his medical procedure, but he knew there was little choice but to prove himself in pre-Clausura training camp in order to keep his spot.
"I trained preseason with (Atlas in December)," Conde said. "With the change in staff, they bought in new people. It wasn't necessarily just the injury (that forced me out); they bought in their own players. I decided to take out the screws that were still there from the operation on the 23rd of December, so I had a pair of inactive weeks."
With the situation facing the club, any added waiting time was more than Atlas could endure.
"It was frustrating because I was asking that (Atlas) have patience for at least one more month but they needed the players ready due to the situations surrounding the club," he said. "For those reasons, I had to take a step aside."
And New York stepped in. Conde joined the Red Bulls on Feb. 5 and went through three-a-day training sessions in preparation for the coming season. Though he hadn't seen any competitive playing time, the recovery process seems to have paid dividends.
"(Thursday), we went for medical exams and they gave me all the pertinent tests; MRI, CT scans – and everything is perfect," a visibly alleviated Conde said. "Everything turned out very well, as we expected."
According to a source within the team, Conde's regimen was strenuous, but his performance was encouraging enough for the staff to believe he would be part of their opening day plans.
His next big test will come this week, as the New York Red Bulls travel to Arizona for the Diamond Desert Cup. The team will play five matches in 10 days, including a friendly against Mexican club Pumas UNAM. There, Conde anticipates seeing his first in-game action of the offseason.
"I will have a bit more intergration with the team and play a little football," Conde said. "I wouldn't be able to tell you (how many games I will play). The medical staff will speak to the coaching staff and come to an accord, but what I want most is to be in good physical shape to start the season off right."