Chivas USA’s Carlos Bocanegra takes in stride being left off U.S. team
He used to be Captain America.
But even superheroes can’t stop the march of time so, at 34, Carlos Bocanegra has been forced to give up his U.S. national team shirt and the captain’s armband he wore with distinction for nearly six years.
Yet rather than sulking and whining and wallowing in the kind of self-pity that has seemingly become a character trait of top-flight soccer players, Bocanegra displayed the kind of selfless leadership that earned him the armband in the first place.
“The national team, it’s not a guarantee,” he says. “You’re selected each time you play and you have to perform. You can’t pin your hopes on the national team. If it comes, it’s awesome, you’ve earned it. It’s fantastic.
“But if not, you’ve got to keep going. It’s a privilege.”
A privilege that hasn’t been extended to Bocanegra since last February’s World Cup qualifier in Honduras. There have been four national team training camps since then and Bocanegra hasn’t been invited to any.
Another stack of invitations will go out next week, ahead of the final two World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica and Panama. And though there’s nothing preventing U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann from calling Bocanegra up for those games, the defender isn’t hopeful.
“I haven’t given up on it. If it comes again, excellent,” he says. “If not, I’m not holding my breath.”
Klinsmann isn’t tipping his hand either way since he was unavailable for comment last week regarding Bocanegra’s future with the national team. But his actions over the last eight months haven’t been encouraging.
When the U.S. manager left Bocanegra off his roster for the spring and early summer rounds of World Cup qualifying, he first said it was because the defender wasn’t playing regularly for this club team, then because he didn’t fit into Klinsmann’s top four at center back.
And when Bocanegra wasn’t called up for last summer’s Gold Cup, Klinsmann said it was because his former captain was in the middle of a move from Scotland’s Rangers to Chivas USA.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article said Carlos Bocanegra played for the Queens Park Rangers.
Yet even after Bocanegra established himself at Chivas and proved his fitness with the Major League Soccer club, that wasn’t good enough to earn a spot in camp ahead of September’s two World Cup qualifiers.
“Me and Juergen actually had a good dialogue from January leading into the summertime,” says Bocanegra, who should make his 10th start of the season for Chivas on Sunday night when the team plays host to San Jose at the StubHub Center. “We spoke quite often. We were honest with each other. And it’s fine.”
With the U.S. having already qualified for next year’s World Cup, Klinsmann could revisit that dialogue and invite Bocanegra in for October’s two games or for a November friendly in Scotland to build depth at a position that now seems to belong to the Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City. But there is already plenty of talent behind those two with Clarence Goodson, John Anthony Brooks, Geoff Cameron and Michael Orozco all having started in central defense since Bocanegra last played for the national team.
That leaves Bocanegra to confront the obvious: Captain America will have to give up his shield half a year shy of a third consecutive World Cup appearance.
“It’s a tough time,” says Cobi Jones, who played a record 164 matches for the U.S. before being dropped from the national team during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. "[But] you can read the writing on the wall.
“It takes about a minute to realize you’re not there. It’s tough in the beginning, but you can’t bemoan the situation. There’s so many other things out there to distract you. The national team, for the laymen out there, it’s a part-time gig.”
And Bocanegra’s new full-time job with Chivas has certainly demanded his attention, something that has helped lessen the sting of the national team snub.
“Ever since I’ve been here I’m happy about it,” says Bocanegra, who grew up in Southern California, played at UCLA and started his professional career in MLS with the Chicago Fire before moving to Europe a decade ago. “The new coach [Jose Luis Real] has come in, and he’s fantastic with the group. We have a lot of young players. It’s been a great experience so far and we’ve improved.”
Much of that is Bocanegra’s doing. His presence alongside Bobby Burling has helped strengthen what had been a weak back line. And as the oldest, most experienced player on a young roster, he has become a teacher and a leader for Chivas, just as he was with the national team. That, too, has made it easier to move on.
“At the moment I’m just trying to concentrate with Chivas and play well here,” he says. “If something comes around before the World Cup, great. But if not, I’m not going to have any hard feelings. I was able to play for the U.S. team. And I had so many great times and experiences.
“It is what it is. At the beginning, the first few games that you watch, it was really, really hard. And it’s still hard to wish you were out there. But you can’t just sit here and dwell on things. You’ve got to move forward and make the best of every situation.
“I’m just trying to do that here.”
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