New York, Nov 15: Set to make 100 appearances for the United States a decade after his international debut, only now does captain Carlos Bocanegra know the value of leadership.
The 32-year-old Bocanegra will become the 12th American—and only fourth defender—to achieve the feat when the team plays Slovenia in a friendly Tuesday night in Ljubljana.
Bocanegra will join Jeff Agoos (134), Marcelo Balboa (127) and Paul Caligiui (110) as the only American defenders with 100 caps.
“I remember watching basketball or NFL when I was growing up,” he said during a telephone interview Monday, “and it was kind of like, ‘Great veteran leadership from this guy. He's been around the league. He knows how to play the game.' And I'm going: What the hell are these announcers talking about? Get the young guys in there, the flashy ones.
“You realize once you do get a bit older and you play on different teams it's nice to have a mix. You need some veterans on the team, and some guys who have been there and been through experiences. And you need the guys who don't know any better, and they just go for it.”
He needs one goal to match Balboa's 13 for most among U.S. defenders.
“It's funny. I still feel 21,” Bocanegra said.
With only one win from six matches since Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley as coach in July, the Americans are coming off a 1-0 loss Friday at 15th-ranked France. Slovenia is ranked 27th, seven places above the U.S.
After attending high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California, Bocanegra played at UCLA under Sigi Schmid, now the coach of Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders. Bocanegra started his professional career with the Chicago Fire in 2000, then went to England with Fulham (2004-08) before switching to France with Rennes (2008-10) and Saint-Etienne (2010-11).
“Obviously, I would love to have my pro team be out of Rancho Cucamonga and be based at home and go to the Sunday barbecues with my buddies and swimming and all that stuff,” he said. “But I've been so lucky and so fortunate to be able to see the world through soccer with the travel in other cultures and live in other cultures, experience other cultures. It's really just kind of opened my world and broadened my horizons. I don't think it would have been like this if I stayed in the States.”
In August, he made a somewhat surprising move to Rangers in the relatively weak Scottish Premier League. Winning a title was his motivation—his last one was the 1997 NCAA championship with UCLA, and the closest he came in Europe was when Rennes lost the 2009 French Cup final 2-1 to Guingamp.
“It's just something I'd really like to have in my list of accomplishments at the end of my career,” he said. “This opportunity came up with Rangers, and the possibility of playing in the Champions League. I've never done that either. I'd just love to be able to tick that off my list.”
Tuesday's match will be in the 25th different country he's played in with the national team and it will be his 54th as the American captain, a role he took on when Claudio Reyna retired from international football after the 2006 World Cup. Bocanegra had been reticent about discussing the century mark until this week.
“I never thought about it when I was younger,” he said. “Jurgen has said a few things this week and a few of the guys said a few things. My parents and my family and everyone, they're always supportive. They know not to bug me too much about it until it happens.”
He thought back to Sam George, a Fire midfielder he played with whose younger brother Seth was a teammate at UCLA. Sam George gave Bocanegra some advice that's stuck with him throughout the years, the games and the countries.
“Hey, you're not in California anymore nor is anyplace in the world going to be like this, wherever you go.” Bocanegra recalled. “So suck it up, get over it, and let's get on with it.”