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U.S. Soccer All-Timer Carlos Bocanegra Looks Ahead

From bankruptcy at Rangers to relegation at Racing Santander to the unmitigated disaster of Chivas USA, the former U.S. national team captain has seen it all. Brian Sciaretta reports.

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
December 30, 2013
1:20 PM
AS ITS CENTENNIAL YEAR drew to a close, U.S. Soccer named its all-time starting XI to honor those who have shined the brightest for the national team. Five of the players named to the team are still active in the sport, including the "starting" left back on the team—Carlos Bocanegra.

It was a bittersweet honor for Bocanegra, a proud player who has endured difficult times of late. Only 12 months ago the California native was still the captain of the U.S. national team and he was playing his club soccer in Spain for Racing Santander. Jurgen Klinsmann called Bocanegra in for the February 2013 Hexagonal match in San Pedro Sula, but the defender did not play. Then Klinsmann stopped called Bocanegra altogether. Then Racing Santander were relegated out of Spain’s Segunda.

Over the summer Bocanegra elected to leave Europe, returning to play for Major League Soccer's Chivas USA. A two-time winner of MLS's Defender of the Year award, Bocanegra noticed some big changes in the league as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I came back,” Bocanegra told American Soccer Now. “I think the league has made humongous strides since I’ve been gone. I think the biggest thing I noticed is that just about every team has their own soccer-specific stadium. Houston’s is amazing. KC’s is really nice. That part has changed completely."

"I remember when we used to play at Arrowhead Stadium on a Sunday afternoon and there were 1,200 people there," he continued. "Pretty much everywhere you’re getting good crowds and good atmosphere. The atmosphere in Seattle is like a big European game. It's really amazing how far it has come in a relatively short amount of time.”

While Bocanegra has noticed the improvement in MLS by way of atmosphere and fan support, the one drawback is that his club, Chivas USA, continues to be major concern for the league. Struggling on the field with the worst record in the Western Conference, Chivas USA has the weakest fan support in the league by a healthy margin.

In 2013, Chivas USA had an average attendance of 8,366 but announced crowds appeared to be far smaller. The club was involved in an embarrassing lawsuit and earlier this month, MLS commissioner Don Garber admitted in an interview with Sports Illustrated that Chivas USA “was a far bigger challenge than anybody hoped it would be, in so many different ways.” He also added, “we didn’t get it right, and still don’t have it right, with Chivas USA.”

When Bocanegra joined Chivas USA, he was happy with the opportunity to play close to his hometown in Southern California but he does not shy away from the problems that his new club faces. He knows that the first step for the club to begin the long road to rebuilding is stability with a core group of players, coaching staff, and front office. That direction, however, is still a ways off as there has been heavy club turnover in the offseason, there is no head coach, and many front office positions remain unfilled.

“I don’t think there is any hiding it from anyone that it’s not doing great with attendance, our record on the field, and things like that,” Bocanegra said of Chivas USA. “What I will say is that I’ve been very pleasantly surprised and very happy with how our day-to-day actions go along. You hear stuff about the front office and this and that but none of that was trickling down to the players.”

“As for what needs to happen, that’s a difficult one,” he added. “I think the biggest thing will be some consistency. There has been a lot of turnover with coaches, players, and front office. I think once we get some consistency and can start to build something and build a nucleolus and add a few players. I think that’s when the club is going to start turning it around.”

Chivas USA marks the third successive club for Bocanegra that was mired in controversy, financial problems, or an overall lack of direction. Between Glasgow Rangers—which went bankrupt—Racing Santander, and Chivas USA, the last three seasons have been difficult for Bocanegra to find any sort of stability.

He insists, however, that he is still optimistic and up to the challenges in the year ahead.

“As a soccer player, I’ve been very fortunate to have been part of some awesome teams and I can’t really complain,” Bocanegra explained. “I would have loved to have stayed at Rangers and played as long as I could. I love that club. But it didn’t work out and I have to roll with it and move onto the next. That’s kind of what’s been going on for the past three years with me. It’s nice that I’ll be coming back to Chivas and it’s the first time I’ve been in the same house back-to-back years."

"That’s the life of a footballer and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Beyond the travails of Chivas USA, Bocanegra is happy to be back in MLS and hopes to help the league grow. He is fully aware of Garber's goal of making MLS one of the biggest leagues in the world in the coming decade. And Bocanegra believes this is a reachable goal.

“I think what Don said is a fair statement and is very doable,” Bocanegra said. “The big issue you’re going to get is money. When you can pay big money, you’re going to get the best players. MLS has done a good job of slowly increasing the salary cap. They have a good business model going on with that. Everybody wants to play in America. Everybody loves America over there. When I was growing up, it was difficult to watch a game on TV. Now I can see more Premier League games here in America than I did in England. It’s a whole new generation of players who grew up with increased interest in soccer.”

He continued: “I feel that a lot of the younger players are playing and doing well for their teams either because they’ve come out college early or they have not to college. They are getting a professional environment at a younger age. When I came out of college there was only a handful. Now it seems like there are a few on every team that are stepping in and making an impact. That shows a lot about were the country is going in soccer and how we’ve grown.”

While there are young players like Luis Gil, Diego Fagundez, and DeAndre Yedlin who have stood out in MLS, it has been the veterans that have grabbed the spotlight. In addition to foreign imports like Tim Cahill, Robbie Keane, and Thierry Henry, this addition of top American players has been particularly noteworthy.

Following Bocanegra’s return, MLS managed to lure 30-year-old Clint Dempsey home in perhaps the league’s biggest acquisition since David Beckham. Bocanegra notices that unlike his earlier days in MLS, the foreign stars have a different approach mainly because they are coming over at a younger age.

“You’re getting guys to come over here a little bit younger, “ Bocanegra said. “That was a big thing that kind of drove me crazy when I was younger. I was a young kid fighting hard and I felt that some of the European players who came over when they’re 37 didn’t really care about the league. They just wanted to live here in America. That’s changing completely. It’s a place where you have to be athletic and in shape.”

Now 34, Bocanegra acknowledges he doesn’t know what the future holds. For now he’s a leader at Chivas USA, where expectations are low heading into 2014. He could be called up to the U.S. national team’s January camp, but it is also likely that when he walked off the field injured in the 18th minute against Russia on November 14, 2012, it may have been his last moment wearing the national team’s jersey.

Aside from life on the field, he has begun to think about his future beyond his playing career. He sees the American landscape is now filled with former players, including many of his teammates, staying involved with the game. Claudio Reyna is the technical director at NYCFC, Tab Ramos is the U.S. U-20 national team coach, and Gregg Berhalter is the coach of the Columbus Crew.

Bocanegra now owns and operates the CB3 Sports Performance center in California which helps provide fitness training and coaching to younger players. While that is something that he wants to continue, Bocanegra is eager to stay involved in the game in the same manner many other former players have done recently.

“I am a big, big advocate of sports performance where I have my facility out here,” Bocanegra said. “It’s great. In baseball and football they’ve had it forever. Now people are starting to finally realize this is a necessity in soccer. I’ve always enjoyed keeping fit. I enjoy it and it’s nice to be able to offer it."

"I also want to stay in the game at the highest level somehow, whether it is coaching, front office-type stuff, commentating, I don’t know what. I want to do something.”

Do you think Bocanegra still has enough left in the tank to help the U.S. national team? And do you agree that he deserves a spot on U.S. Soccer's all-time starting XI? Share your thoughts below.

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