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Carlos Bocanegra's leadership made retiring USA star a valuable linchpin

When news of Carlos Bocanegra’s retirement broke late Thursday, two events came immediately to mind.

The first occurred in June 2009 at a packed Soldier Field, where the U.S. national team was trying to get its World Cup qualifying campaign back on track. The Americans had been hammered in Costa Rica a few days earlier and fell behind early to Honduras in Chicago. Landon Donovan leveled the score from the penalty spot and then in the 66th minute, he delivered a corner kick that was nodded back into the mixer by Clint Dempsey. Bocanegra, who has scored more times (14) in a U.S. jersey than any other defender, dove toward the goal, his face level with the boots of both friend and foe, and headed home the winner.

“Bocanegra. Brave. Heart of a lion. Puts his head into it, where it’s dangerous, and there’s the finish,” ESPN analyst and former U.S. captain John Harkes said on the broadcast.

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It was a play that came about as close as one can to epitomizing a 15-year career that spanned five countries and two World Cups. Bocanegra was relentless and devoted, powered by robust belief and a commitment to set the right example. He was courageous and clutch. It’s why he captained the U.S. for six years, even though he was far from its most skillful or dynamic player.

Bocanegra understood the game, both in the broadest sense and within the confines of a given 90 minutes. He could play in the middle or on the flank. He was technical yet tenacious. He could organize, read the play and, as that goal in Chicago demonstrated, find novel ways to contribute.

The second event happened some two years later, in October 2011, at an empty Red Bull Arena. The U.S., now managed by Jurgen Klinsmann, was preparing to meet Ecuador in a friendly and the day before the game, I had the chance to speak to Bocanegra for a few minutes. He had just joined Rangers FC, one of the two Glasgow teams that dominated Scottish soccer. 

“There’s a different pressure, which is new. I hadn’t had that before in my career. We’re expected to win championships,” he said of life atop the Scottish Premier League.

Bocanegra had won the U.S. Open Cup twice in Chicago and claimed a pair of CONCACAF Gold Cup titles with the national team. But he’d struck out in Europe. Through five seasons at Fulham and three in France (with Stade Rennais and Saint-Étienne), his teams never finished higher than seventh.

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He beamed that day at RBA when he said, “I’m really excited because I’ve never had a chance in my career to be able to win something in Europe. I got to a cup final in France [in ‘09] and we lost, and that was frustrating. Now [Rangers] have a chance to win the league. If we win the league, we qualify directly for the Champions League next year, which I’ve never played in. Obviously, it’s a competition you dream about. I watch it every Tuesday and Wednesday night. The Heineken signs come out. The music comes on. That would be awesome. For me, that’s a dream.”

It proved to be one forever deferred. Celtic ran away with the 2011-12 SPL title and Rangers subsequently was dropped three divisions after declaring bankruptcy. Bocanegra played a few games for the reconstituted Glasgow club before heading to Racing Santander, which was facing an economic crisis of its own. It finished 20th in the Spanish second tier and was relegated.

A few months before Racing dropped, Klinsmann dropped Bocanegra – abruptly. He’d started five of the six matches in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying and flew to Honduras in February 2013 expecting to captain the U.S. in the Hexagonal opener. He didn’t see the field. And he never would again in a U.S. jersey.

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MLS teams don’t get relegated and don’t go bankrupt, so the closest thing the league has to an old-fashioned sporting trainwreck is Chivas USA. Lured by the prospect of a return to his Southern California roots, Bocanegra joined Chivas in July 2013. Since he signed, the Goats are 9-24-11 in MLS play. The hapless club was on a nice 4-1-1 run this June and July when Bocanegra suffered a concussion. He hasn’t made an appearance in nearly two months and Chivas is 0-6-1 without him.

The reason that quick conversation in New Jersey jumped out is because what followed was mostly disastrous. The player who gave so much to his team – who embraced every challenge and every bit of responsibility – was disappointed time and again by those for whom he played. It’s been a maddening denouement, the opposite of the Hollywood ending the man from Rancho Cucamonga must have imagined. The dissonance between the Champions League anthem and the silence of an empty StubHub Center would drive plenty of people crazy.

But Bocanegra, now 35 and the father of two, maintained his dignity. He was stoic at times, private at others, but unfailingly positive. He didn’t gripe when Klinsmann cut him, and instead called for unity when the U.S. was struggling early last year. He didn’t blame the clubs that failed him, even if it’s what they deserved. And in a letter posted Thursday on U.S. Soccer’s website, he graciously paid tribute to his former U.S. coaches and teammates, discussed the “true honor” of captaining his country and expressed appreciation for the people and places encountered during his nine-plus years in Europe.

“I owe so much to U.S. Soccer for all the things I’ve been able to experience. Just being out there with the guys is what I’m going to miss the most,” he wrote.

They surely will miss him. For what stood out about Bocanegra, what will be remembered, is his leadership -- the fact that he set the right tone and went about the things the right way. He helped establish a culture in a developing soccer nation. It should be an enduring legacy.