Joshua Wells on the inevitable and the impersonal.
The legend is ingrained in our culture.
The powerful leader stands before his followers, wizened by years, wrinkled by time, but still strong and seemingly invincible to his enemies. He leads his warriors against the foe in a last blaze of glory, winning a vicious battle and going to a glorious death. As his funeral pyre burns, a new generation carries on his legacy while simultaneously honoring his memory.
Unfortunately, legends rarely manifest themselves in the real world.
In the real world, time is undefeated. It adds weight and saps strength. It gives experience while slowing thought. Time diminishes us until the young take our place.
Part of being a fan of sports is watching the ravages of time overtake our heroes. I knew I was getting old when I could remember the entire careers of athletes who were retiring. I began to feel even older when athletes began to retire who started their careers after I started mine. Jurgen Klinnsman’s latest World Cup Qualifying roster bore further evidence that time does, and always will, remain undefeated.
It became apparent from the moment Jurgen’s roster was announced that the names on the team sheet owed much to necessity and rather less to choice. Injury had decimated his choices of fullback and had necessitated the promotion of Brad Guzan to first choice keeper. While the inclusion of names like Bessler, Beltran, and Morrow on the roster certainly give cause for concern, given the shallow depth of the player pool at the moment, it’s difficult to name viable alternatives that would definitely be upgrades. Two names not on the roster signal something different though…the offensive and defensive leaders of the USMNT in the last World Cup would not be playing in the two most important matches of Jurgen Klinnsman’s reign to date.
Landon Donovan has removed himself. There’s nothing much that can be done on that score. After fourteen years of competition at the highest levels, or not so highest levels according to some (most), Landon has decided to take an extended sabbatical. Last seen posing for photographs with Cambodian youths, there’s no telling if or when the hero of World Cup 2010 will return. Jurgen is wisely moving on as if Donovan will never wear the badge again.
The matter of Carlos Bocanegra is different entirely. Until a few months ago, Boca, as he’s affectionately known, was the undisputed captain and leader of a transitioning USMNT backline. An ill fated move to Racing Santander in the Spanish Segunda league, five matches played, and more than a month without a game have seemingly left Carlos on the outside of the USMNT looking in. In what seems like an amazingly short period of time, Bocanegra has gone from indispensible to unwanted in deference to a group of defenders who have barely played a meaningful match in the red, white, and blue strip.
Understandably, the focus of analysis on this roster has been on the exclusion of Bocanegra. On a roster filled with nascent defenders, how can the USMNT afford to dispense with the experience and leadership that Bocanegra is famed for providing as it faces a must win match against Costa Rica and a trip to the cauldron that is Azteca?
If you gave Klinsmann a truth serum, my guess his answer would simply be, “Easily.”
The value of leadership in any group is dependent on both the effectiveness of the leader and the willingness of his followers.
In the present circumstance, the value of Bocanegra’s experience and leadership has been compromised on both fronts.
A leader who is no longer competent can no longer lead, and the evidence suggests that Bocanegra is no longer competent. After being found surplus to requirements at Rangers (admittedly not totally his fault due to the unique circumstances in Glasgow), Carlos could find no better landing spot than a struggling club in Spain’s second division. Once there, he found it impossible to play more than a handful of matches in a backline that gives up 1.5 goals per game. That Racing has four managers this year is more a testament to what lowly olive branch to prolong a Euro career was being extended.
In short, the evidence suggests, simply by the mere fact that they can get a match, the defenders called in by Jurgen are better players at this moment than Bocanegra.
CONCACAF is no longer a region in which the USMNT can rely on players who are not playing at club level.
The very idea that a player who is not playing for his club could be called in, given the captain’s armband, and slotted in as a starter would be laughed off in any other nation where the expectations are as high as they are for the USMNT.
One disconcerting item from Brian Straus’s excellent Sporting News article on Tuesday was that there are a few players in the USMNT player pool who are not only willing to anonymously throw their teammates and coaches under the bus, but have so little respect for the CONCACAF qualifying process that they were shocked when Boca didn’t start against Honduras.
The object of the game is to win, and a coach should only call in those players who give them the best chance to do so. Based on the evidence we have right now, Carlos is not that player.
One could argue, as some have, that Jurgen should have called up Bocanegra simply for his value in training and on the sideline. First, this ignores the question of whether Carlos wants that role. Carlos is still a player, and players want to play, not travel half away across the world to provide sage advice and inspirational speeches. Second, it ignores the fact that the USMNT setup already has players who had successful playing careers, are now too old to contribute on the field, and are part of the team solely to provide experience, leadership, and guidance. We call these former players coaches.
Fortunately, leadership and character is not lacking on the current iteration of the USMNT.
Even with the actions of a few players who decided to lob verbal grenades from the comfort of their anonymous bunkers, the USMNT is full of individuals possessing excellent leadership qualities. Michael Bradley would seem to be the clear choice as team captain, both on the strength of his character and the skill of his play. Having watched the way his father has navigated the daunting circumstances taking place in Egypt, it’s no wonder Mr. and Mrs. Bradley have produced a son like Michael.
In addition to Captain Brad (I’m going to call him that regardless of who gets the armband), U.S. Soccer fans are fortunate to have a group of high character players to cheer on, including men like the hard working and convivial Herculez Gomez. Replacement goal keeper Brad Guzan has spent the past season standing in front of a firing squad, yet has nothing but praise and encouragement for his youthful and mistake prone Aston Villa backline. A quickly maturing Jozy Altidore handled an incident of racist abuse with such grace and character that the whole sporting world took notice. With the turmoil surrounding the team in addition to the inherent pressure of the next two matches, the USMNT will need each of its players to step up and fill the leadership role vacated by Bocanegra. The past few months have exposed several candidates capable of taking on that task.
The truth is that as fans (and apparently some players) of the USMNT, we are going to have to accept the fact that good stories are good because they rarely happen. While we would all love to see legitimate legends like Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Howard, and Donovan go out in a blaze of glory, winning one last celebrated victory for the Stars and Stripes, it is far more likely that each is unceremoniously replaced by somebody quicker, faster, stronger, and better…in a word, younger.
Sadly, each time a fresh young face steps into the role formerly held by a face I still see as young and full of promise, I will be reminded that the reflection in my own mirror looks worse for wear as well. With that in mind, here’s hoping that Carlos and crew experience one more revival, and give us all a legendary tale that provides comfort as we contemplate the march of our own mortality.
More on Bocanegra from the TSG archives: