Bocanegra: There Is No Defense For The Ravages Of Time

"Time" is undefeated.

“Time” is undefeated.

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.

Indelible.

Indelible.

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.

Not all foot races are against 33-year-olds either...

Not all foot races are against 33-year-olds either…

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:

On Bocanegra: Time For MLS To Show Its Corporate Maturity

Elephant In The Room & Its Not Gooch or DeMerit

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27 responses to this post.

    • Posted by Nick on 2013/03/20 at 7:03 AM

      Classy as ever.

      Reply

      • No doubt. When I saw that last night, it made me wish even more that things were going differently for Boca.

        Reply

    • Posted by Crow on 2013/03/20 at 10:20 AM

      Thank you for posting this- I hadn’t seen it. The Brian Strauss article insinuated that Boca getting dropped and his reaction created even more disunity within the locker room. Whether that actually happened or not, or to what extent it did, I’m glad that Boca made this public statement- a sign of a true leader. I found it unusual to think of Bocanegra to be a disruption in the locker room especially at such a critical time- due to him being such an excellent captain over the years.

      Reply

  1. When JK took over he made it very clear that he valued Boca’s leadership and experience and that he would be given every chance to lead this team into the 2014 World Cup.

    More than anything Boca has been undone by the untimely demise of Rangers. Had they not succumbed to all that insanity I’m certain Boca would have led the US out in Honduras and would be leading them out still.

    I think it’s clear all that turmoil affected his form.

    Ironically Boca’s classy behavior may have contributed to his own undoing.

    He stayed with Rangers as long as he could because, he said, and I don’t doubt him, that he truly loved playing there and wanted to be there for the team. As a consequence he left long after he should have. Had he cut ties earlier he might have been able to secure as less screwy landing place than Santander and its 4 managerial changes in one year.

    At any rate, if he can secure a new team quickly, it may be too soon to write off Boca. At least that is what I would like to see. Guys like him are why I support that damm team.

    Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/03/20 at 9:00 PM

      I am sure you “support that damn team” because you’re American.

      Reply

      • Mr. Cross,

        I believe you support Crystal Palace a club with a great name. I most associate Palace with John Salako who was a cool player with a great name.

        I gather you don’t live near there anymore but it seems you became a fan when you were younger so you still follow them. In this day and age that is a lot easier to do than it used to be.

        The point is if you still support them it really helps if you have some sort of relatable personal connection to either the team or the players or both.

        Being an American isn’t necessary if you want to root for the USMNT but living in this country helps.

        I happen to find most of the US players easy to relate to. I don’t generally root for “laundry” as they say. In Boca’s case for example I’ve spent a lot of time in So Cal where he is from and know guys like him.

        With Mo Edu, Goodson, Robbie Rogers, Gonzo, AJ De la Garza and Zusi they are former Terps and I root for the University of Maryland. And so on for a lot of the guys. The USMNT is a very diverse bunch and since I’ve traveled around most of this country I find the team to be pretty representative of America itself. And the German contingent reminds me of all the time I’ve spent on US bases overseas.

        It’s much harder to warm up to teams with players I’ve never heard of and know nothing about.

        For example, Ruben Khazan may be a good team but besides the fact that they sound like a Deli sandwich, I can’t relate much to their players. If the US were suddenly filled with the likes of John Harkes, Lalas and Wynalda, I might find them a lot less palatable but I’d probably still want them to prevail. Besides, they would . probably be better if the younger versions of those guys were available.

        Reply

    • Posted by s44 on 2013/03/20 at 9:04 PM

      Let’s not exaggerate here.

      Boca has done great things for the US (remember that goal vs Brazil!?), but his declining athleticism cost us decisively even in 2010. It’s now 2013… about the time transitioning him out was going to have to happen. This is rather rockier and less storybook than we might have wanted, but I certainly didn’t want him starting for us in a WC match.

      Reply

      • Posted by chris_thebassplayer on 2013/03/21 at 10:26 PM

        I agree, The transition probably should have started after SA, but there was a lag waiting for viable CB options to appear. It put us in a tough spot having Boca as captain still in the mix entering the initial qualifiers.

        Reply

  2. Posted by Jim from NC & Scotland on 2013/03/20 at 10:22 AM

    I enjoyed reading this very much but do have a problem to the following passage:

    “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.”

    The idea of players not playing for club and getting called in to play (and start) happens all of the time and it even happens to captains of squads. A very current example is Vincent Kompany of Belgian. I know it is a little different situation because it is an injury keeping him off of the field but he has not played a match since Jan 19th, but he has been called into camp with the intentions of playing two qualifiers as team captain.

    Reply

    • Posted by Ufficio on 2013/03/20 at 6:13 PM

      Also see: mighty, mighty Mexico relying heavily on Barrera and Juárez when they were rotting on the benches of West Ham and Celtic respectively. I guess they weren’t captains, but I don’t really see why that matters. It’s not the captaining skills that get rusty.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Jim from NC & Scotland on 2013/03/20 at 1:02 PM

    I enjoyed reading this very much but do have a problem to the following passage
    “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.”
    The idea of players not playing for club and getting called in to play (and start) happens all of the time and it even happens to captain of squads. A very current example is Vincent Kompany of Belgian. I know it is a little different situation because it is an injury keeping him off of the field but he has not played a match since Jan 19th, but he has been called into camp with the intentions of playing two qualifiers as team captain.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Gregorio on 2013/03/20 at 3:07 PM

    I too, have reservations about this article, I don’t think the dropping of Boca before the Honduras game is the issue as is much as how he was dropped if we are to follow Strauss’s account. Was Boca & other players in the denial about what was going to happen or was it that abrupt? Which is rather rude unless it was done for some shock motivational value. If not then it was a rather classless way to handle it, maybe a pull aside private conversation would be more appropriate to give the player space to feel & express his private emotions. Putting him on the spot and then patronizing him by asking for his support after you cut off his balls publicly is one quick way to lose the locker room.
    and Boca handles the fallout with regal eland is great too, but what are his choices? to gripe publicly? and be totally blacklisted? His classy response is what made him the captain and personafies him as our symbol of patriotic service ideal.
    He will be back I’m certain, the change in managers at Santander did not help his cause nor did the fall of the Rangers(why would anyone with any remote connection to catholicism go to rangers is another topic of discussion

    Reply

  5. Posted by JGD on 2013/03/20 at 3:08 PM

    In my opinion, you can’t account enough for experience, especially with regards to World Cup qualifiers. You’ll not hear argument from me that Gonzalez, Besler, and even Goodson are currently in better form than Bocanegra. However, Bocanegra’s “cool as a cucumber” composure might just have been the difference maker in Honduras, where the team directly lost because of backline errors. It was obvious that Howard missed Bocanegra’s co-leadership on the field, the two have formed an excellent tandem for such a long time. Cameron has the makings of a field-general, but time will tell if he’s able to fill that role. We’ll see how he does marshaling the line against a stiff Costa Rica side and in the fiery cauldron that is the Azteca.

    I disagree that a player must be active for his club to command the respect of his teammates and effectively lead at the national level. And I don’t think Bocanegra’s form has dropped off so considerably so as to justify going without his experience and leadership.

    Reply

    • Posted by JGD on 2013/03/20 at 3:12 PM

      Just as an aside, I truly hope I’m proven wrong and the backline performs admirably over these qualifiers. But should they be prone to mental gaffes, I have a feeling my thoughts on Bocanegra will only solidify. Perhaps that’ll be a bad case of confirmation bias, but I digress.

      Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/03/20 at 9:09 PM

      How can you mention “current form” when Bocanegra has not started for 6-7 weeks? Coupled with him not playing at the highest level. Well, you know what I’m getting at…

      Reply

  6. This is a well written article. I read your posts often and the description of how “time” the undefeated warrior marches on. I am sorryi to see all these players leave as they grow old in comparison to “young turks”. Time will always win and its best to know when to yield, Bocanegra has bowed gracefully to the great warrior. Thank you and good luck to Bocanegra, never was I a great fan till this day.

    Reply

  7. When I read that article, I found it telling that Klinnsmann seems to be somewhat happy by the reaction of the players. This almost seems to be what he’s been working for. Klinnsmann seems to believe that the team must get worse before it gets better. However, whichever way you slice it, I don’t have a lot of faith in the team at this moment and should we go the first three games with no more than 1 point, I think it becomes time to question whether somebody else can salvage this qualifying campaign.

    Reply

    • Kevin,

      Saying JK wanted all this turmoil may be a little off the mark but not by much.

      Frankly this controversy says more about those unamed players than JK. JK’s flaws have been out there since day one.

      If you are to believe Boca, Donovan, Beckerman and Brad Davis, JK is not hard to communicate with. Granted no one outside will believe them but you have to figure the complainers are the ones who aren’t doing well. The complaints are also minor issues; I’d expect more professional players to solve this stuff on their own or go to the manager or failing that, Boca the captain, by now. Pulling this sort of manuever at this point seems fairly low rent and desperate. I guess I was naive enough to think the US players were a little better than this.

      Regardless, JK seems to have been waiting for this I’m sure he’s seen worse. And he’s made it clear that the transition would be a long hard ride.

      This could actually be a good thing for the team. You have to think everything is out on the table now in that locker room. If these guys have half the character I hope they do, they can use this to air it all out and get things sorted.

      However, I’ll bet Vasquez is a dead man walking

      After all, everyone in that locker room would lose the opportunity of a life time if they fail to make the World Cup.

      Reply

      • In general I feel as if the team losing faith in Klinnsmann is an exaggeration. Most likely these quotes came as a simple answer to a simple question about Klinnsmann’s coaching style, half time talks, training sessions, etc. I would argue that a number of these players have read this article recognized their quotes and don’t feel too great about contributing to this.

        All that said, this “controversy” isn’t nearly as big a deal as the fact that this team hasn’t been playing too well and there’s probably a better chance of leaving these next two WCQ’s with no points than there is leaving with 6 (or even 4) points.

        Reply

  8. Posted by Eric on 2013/03/21 at 5:06 AM

    Winning fixes a lot of problems. Whatever issues there may or may not be within the team, if the guys start winning again then most of the problems solve themselves.

    Reply

  9. Posted by matthewsf on 2013/03/21 at 11:50 AM

    I think you have to look at “these comments” two ways.

    One, were they said by someone who has something to gain. I.E. plays RB, LB etc.
    The answer there is I doubt it.

    Two, if they were said by someone who is more integral to the team who’s exhausted other means of communicating.
    That’s more concerning but also more likely. In fact, Straus said that these were some core players. (BTW, I wouldn’t rule out players offering a quote to Straus and also saying it was a bad thing to do after the fact)

    For US soccer media (and I am more peripheral to it), I would say the tactical nous issue is one that has been commented on *to me* by 3 “people in the know” as I would say. I know other journos that I’ve spoken with have heard it from more people.

    So I have to believe much of what Straus writes is true.

    Now, whether that has any baring on winning or the program in the future (or is just part of the process?)

    I comment on the March to the Match podcast yesterday that what is specifically troubling for me is the following:

    If you have a vision, then it is perplexing to me how there are 23-different lineup changes, the “Jose Torres” merry-go-round, and what seems like a very reactive roster/line-up selection process. (No attack against Jamaica, thus creates Torres, Dempsey, Zusi all in in Pittsburgh was it?, No width against Honduras and now you have Zusi, Shea, Davis, Beasley, EJ (whose played wide under JK), kljestan (same) in camp).

    Now, I would be willing to disclaim all *that* even if you had some style that was developing on the field. But I don’t see it.

    To me, if you’re not going to win anyway you can to get to Brazil … okay fine, define a style and stick to it. I don’t see either.

    That’s what is troubling to me.

    Also, if I’m a present core player (before Klinsmann got there), then I probably have a vested interest in making sure I’m not part of some experiment and I get to my world cup.

    Reply

  10. Posted by Soccernst on 2013/03/21 at 8:41 PM

    The parts of this article about the leadership of the current players sounds like the motivational speech JK needs to deliver before the game. They say you lack the talent of the old guard. They doubt your character, your leadership, your unity. You are the new generation, of American soccer. athleticism Heart, and grit have long been defining qualities of this team and a reflection of your great nation. Add to that skill, ingenuity and intelligence, and you are pioneers of soccer in this country, yes built on the determination of you predecessors, but the first in red white and blue who know the heart of this game is beautiful.

    Who’s kind of with me ja?! Now drink your kefir and lets do some yoga!

    Reply

  11. [...] Oh Captain, My Captain.Joshua Wells of The Shin Guardian wrote a thoughtful piece on Carlos Bocanegra losing his spot on the team, and the captaincy, last week. The story (both Wells’ and the story in general) got a good [...]

    Reply

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