Captaining the U.S. Men’s National Team for six years during an international career which spanned more than a decade, former Fulham and Glasgow Rangers defender Carlos Bocanegra personified what it is to play and lead at the top level, and as his name was elevated through the years, the music which permeated his journey in the game only grew sharper.
For most players, suiting up for your country is the greatest honour, never mind surpassing a century of caps and wearing the captain’s armband on the most prestigious stage of all. Carlos Bocanegra managed to check each of those boxes, scoring 14 goals in 110 games for the United States and playing in the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups, skippering the side in the latter.
Notably representing Fulham for four years in the Premier League, Carlos returned home to California after almost ten years in Europe as he finished his career with Chivas USA. After the 2014 Major League Soccer campaign was up, it was farewell to the playing days for ‘Boca’, although not goodbye to the game that ultimately won through for him during a youth spent competing in numerous other sports.
Soccer proved the path for the talented all-round athlete and now he is beginning to draw upon the knowledge of a stellar career on the field in these early months of his role as Technical Director of Atlanta United, who will begin play in MLS in 2017. So many peers and observers at home and abroad came to know him as the assured on-field competitor, but as always there are alternative angles to uncover, and music became increasingly prominent and valued as his career went on.
“We were actually just talking about this the other day,” he began. “I was never huge on music growing up because I was involved in sports so much, but then it became such an integral part of the locker room for the teams I was on.”
“Back when I was in college it wasn’t like you’d bring your Beats by Dre; someone would maybe have a tape player.”
Carlos grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, born to parents Manuel and Kelly, who are both teachers, and he enjoyed a fairly easygoing upbringing. His older brother, Diego, played soccer at Grand Canyon College before attending UCLA – Carlos would follow suit and enjoy great success – and eventually transferring to Fresno State, where he graduated from.
Now assistant coach at Notre Dame, Diego certainly played his part in the soundtrack to those days back home for Carlos.
“The first I ever bought was Red Hot Chili Peppers and they’re still one of my favourites. I haven’t seen them live yet but hopefully one day.
“It was ‘Under the Bridge’ and I believe it was on vinyl. My brother was into music quite a bit at the time and Red Hot Chili Peppers were one I remember hearing in the back room.
“Bands like Sublime I remember being big in LA, and then onto the punk rock, I guess you’d call it, like Blink 182. These days I don’t have a specific genre; hip-hop was always a big part of the locker room, and I’ve been surrounded more by country in the South.
“In terms of bands, Kings of Leon and Maroon 5 are two that stand out for me. I’m not huge into heavy metal, so that’s the one I tend to steer clear of.”
As well as soccer, Carlos was a basketball, football and track and field performer growing up, also playing on the freshman and junior varsity baseball teams at Alta Loma High School. Leaving football behind wasn’t easy and early on in his soccer career Carlos admitted to missing those Friday night games in which he starred as a defensive back and wide receiver.
However, during current Seattle Sounders boss Sigi Schmid’s 19 seasons coaching UCLA he saw Carlos play and invited him to camp with the U.S. Under-18s, a team he was also working with. After rejoining his club team his path eventually led him to UCLA and he was part of a team that went down in school history, winning the 1997 National Championship and making Soccer America’s All-Freshman Team.
In that very same era of college soccer, a defender was making his way at Maryland and in years to come he would pursue his career in the game over the Atlantic. It was while Carlos was with Fulham that they shared accommodation and also an ear for music.
“I was pretty fortunate in London because I saw bands in some pretty cool settings. I saw The Killers at Brixton Academy, and my flatmate, Beckett Hollenbach, got me into Kings of Leon before they went big.”
A 2013 inductee into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame, Carlos caught the attention of Chicago Fire head coach Bob Bradley, his future National Team boss, who thought he played beyond his years. Having been selected fourth overall by the Fire in the 2000 MLS SuperDraft he won the league’s Rookie of the Year award before taking the Defender of the Year crown in 2002 and 2003.
With two Open Cup wins in his four years with Chicago, it would be almost a full decade before he returned to MLS, as he headed to the Premier League with Fulham in January 2004. Compatriot Brian McBride already had loans with Preston North End and Everton to his name and the striker also made the switch to Craven Cottage at the time.
In those first few weeks, the pair lived in a hotel along with Dutch winger Bobby Petta, who had joined on loan from Celtic. They enjoyed times down King’s Road together, and Carlos and McBride were part of ‘Fulhamerica’, with Clint Dempsey joining in 2007 and goalkeeper Kasey Keller and striker Eddie Johnson also flying the flag for the States in Carlos’ four years with the club.
Keeper Marcus Hahnemann had also come to the English game with the Cottagers in 1999 and long-time National Team winger Eddie Lewis followed suit in 2000. Carlos was one who left his mark with the West London side, becoming immersed in the club culture and bagging standout goals like the last-gasp winner against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2006 and the decisive equaliser at Chelsea in December that year.
He scored eight times in 136 games, playing left-back and centre-back, as well as fitting into midfield occasionally, and he recalls some of the team DJs from back then.
“We had a few at Fulham, like Diomansy Kamara, Clint, but music in the UK was not really the main thing in the locker room. It’s different with the National Team, for example, where you’ve got (Equipment Operations Director) Jesse Bignami.
“He’s got the boombox and he bleeds music; he cares about that more than the jerseys!”
Bignami was first mentioned on here by midfielder Kyle Beckerman in 2011 and he has long been part of the National Team fabric. The Sacramento native has the tunes taken care of, but which of the players like to throw in their choices? Was Carlos ever the one to step in?
“I was the furthest away! I was definitely not allowed to be in the DJ booth but you’d get guys like Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley and Tim Howard on the music.
“We’d get DJs passing on their mixtapes or guys who ran clubs, so you’d get some crazy mixes in there. I think it was a cool thing for them to be able to say they had their music played in the U.S. locker room.
“DJ Hollywood in Vegas was someone I got to know pretty well.”
On June 17th 2006, Carlos was wearing number three and stood on the field in Kaiserslautern as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played ahead of the U.S. versus Italy in the World Cup. The 1-1 draw with the eventual champions was his debut in the competition and number eight was also appearing in the competition for the first time – Clint Dempsey.
The man also known as ‘Deuce’ has delved into rapping over the years and he gets props for his vocal skill from Carlos, although he rates the singing talent pool from those he played with as bare in the extreme!
“To be honest, they’re all pretty horrible! Maurice Edu thinks he’s a fantastic singer.
“Clint’s a great rapper; it’s definitely not a singing voice! He’s a clever guy and it’s something he uses to get him in the zone.”
Back in high school, ‘Los’ came up against fellow Southern Californian and National Team great Landon Donovan. He also developed an early understanding with Tim Howard while they were in the youth setup and the Everton stopper would be the last line of defence as Carlos led the States to runners-up at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, where they swept Spain aside 2-0 in the semi.
A standout moment for Boca came in the 2010 World Cup qualifier with Honduras at Soldier Field. With 55,647 in attendance in Chicago, Bob Bradley’s team overcame a 1-0 deficit, with Donovan levelling from the spot and Carlos notching the win with a brave header.
As captain at the subsequent World Cup a year later, the team reached the last 16 as group winners after Donovan’s dramatic winner against Algeria spectacularly saved them from elimination. It was a duo from that tournament squad who came up when Carlos was asked who’d be on the list for a collaboration if he ever recorded a song cover with teammates.
“Stu Holden and Jay DeMerit – you’d have to get them involved. Those two jokers were the heart and soul of the banter and the chants from the back of the bus.
“I think we’d make a pretty good boyband. It would have to be something where Stuey could hit those high notes; maybe Britney Spears!”
A two-time CONCACAF Gold Cup winner, Carlos had started the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign but it was during that series of games under Jurgen Klinsmann that he was suddenly left out. That ultimately meant the conclusion of an international career most can only hope to get close to experiencing.
Carlos played with numerous combinations of teammates at the back and earned further admiration for how he handled being overlooked at the end. He was a true captain for his country, proudly representing around the globe on so many occasions, although he couldn’t quite make his initiation song cross the linguistic borders upon leaving Fulham!
“I did it in France and they didn’t understand a word of it! It was the most horrendous version of ‘Gin and Juice’ – Snoop Dogg.”
Departing Fulham in 2008, Carlos spent two seasons with Rennes in France’s top flight and scored the opening goal in the Coupe de France final defeat to Guingamp in his debut year. That game was at the Stade de France in front of over 80,000 and he went on to represent ten-time league champions Saint-Étienne in 2010/11.
Two full seasons with Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers preceded the club’s demotion after The Rangers Football Club PLC was liquidated, leaving the 54-time top-flight champions to pick up in the fourth tier. Carlos stayed with the Gers and represented them down in the Third Division before ultimately moving on loan to Racing Santander in Spain’s Segunda División to prolong his National Team prospects.
‘Los Verdiblancos’ suffered relegation that season and Carlos was to return home to California in 2013, joining Chivas USA. The franchise had struggled for some time and ceased operations in 2014 after ten MLS seasons.
The switch back to the Golden State had allowed Carlos his first opportunity in a long while to remain in the same home for more than a year. His numerous seasons spent in the European game were of course laden with high points and enjoyment, but the path of any top pro is never free from obstacles and he reflects on this as he assesses the most meaningful lessons from his career.
“Some of the hardest times are when you’re overseas and you’re not playing. It might be a situation where the manager doesn’t pick you, or a new guy comes in and for months on end you’re grinding away without getting your chance.
“I think the most important thing is perseverance and making sure you’re ready to take your chance when it comes. Also not to get derailed, because it’s a game of opinions and I think that translates well into life; being able to get through tough times, not only in a soccer sense.”
MLS was the backdrop for the start and end of Carlos’ playing days and by the time he had returned in 2013 one of the observations he made was a change for the better in the way it was treated by the older players who came from abroad. Leadership was always a hallmark of Carlos out on the field and he now has the chance to implement that and more as Technical Director for the league’s 21st team, Atlanta United, who begin play in 2017.
The club’s President is Darren Eales, and Carlos will work with him to oversee day-to-day non-coaching soccer operations, including helping to decide on the players and coach to bring in, developing the scouting network, and also the structure of the academy, which they hope to have up and running before the first team kicks its first ball.
Carlos explains how he has been adapting to the change in dynamic from the role of the athlete he has always been used to.
“It’s going good. I was in a pretty fortunate position coming in as a young executive director and I’ve just been trying to take everything in.
“I have a great mentor in Darren and to have him a part of my growth was a huge part of why I took the role. I’ve been trying to get into the flow of transitioning from the playing side to front office; your days are longer and they’re no longer structured around working out, eating and preparing for games.”
Being able to contribute to the design and layout of the training facility was a further aspect to energise Carlos and he is keen to learn from owner Arthur Blank. Blank also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the teams will share the currently under-construction Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
To see the various parts of a project coming together is undoubtedly exciting, although the opportunity to establish and develop the intangibles is also right at the top of the agenda for Carlos.
“We get to create the culture and structure of the club and I’ve been trying to take the best parts of the clubs I played for in that regard. The support has been pretty incredible and you can really feel it down here.
“People are excited and to have 26,000 pledged season ticket holders already shows how much support there is. I didn’t realise just how much of a footprint Atlanta has on the Southeast.
“People in places like Alabama and Carolina are excited about it so we’re going to have people crossing state borders to come out and support. In sports you can’t always be victorious but you want players who will leave it all out on the field.
“We want that positive, hard-working learning environment from the field to the front office.”
When he signed for Rangers, Carlos had familiar faces from his time at Fulham in midfielder Steven Davis and forward David Healy. He also had compatriots Alejandro Bedoya and Maurice Edu at Ibrox at that time, while DaMarcus Beasley had previously been on the books.
He would soon spark a familiarity and bond with the people associated with the club and he remembers how he ordered food and was served a chicken pot pie by a fan who had carved ‘3-2 – yes’ on it, in honour of the team’s Old Firm win over bitter Glasgow rivals Celtic. He dreams of Atlanta United being able to give people that lasting sense of belonging as the years go on.
“When players go to clubs like Rangers or Ajax, no matter how many clubs they play for they remember those clubs really strongly. We want this to be a family club and for people to think of Atlanta United as their club for life.”
Over recent years, Carlos has been presiding over the CB3 Sports Performance and Soccer Academy in Upland, although the project with Atlanta is now taking all of his focus. An all-round sportsman, he held the free throw percentage record back in junior high and if he had the chance now to dispense any advice to the Boca who was playing soccer as a youngster he would want to share with him the information he discovered in years to come on how best to maximise his well-being.
“Now I think it would just be on the sports performance and sports science side. There’s so much now that wasn’t available when I was starting out and these kids are pretty fortunate.
“It’s just making us better athletes so I would say to myself, ‘Look, really pay attention to this because it’s gonna extend your career.’”
Regardless of the route a player has gone in the game and how many years of experience they have, it is hard not to smile when you see them display sheer exuberance for the game out on the field. It is true that the sport can deal so much in the way of frustration and heartbreak, but the fun is always there to be recaptured again.
The regular final question on here in recent years has been closely linked to that sentiment. The interviewee is asked to imagine playing in a small-sided game with four teammates from their career to be in their line-up as they take on some opponents.
Each player has their own reasons why they select the teammates they do for this, so it is often not as simple as picking a ‘best four’ and should not necessarily be taken as that. Carlos took some moments to think through some of those he holds in high regard and came up with a side he feels a great degree of confidence in lining up alongside.
“I think I’d play up top just to have some fun. Let’s go with Steve Cherundolo (defender), Tim Howard (goalkeeper) and Louis Saha (forward).
“As a midfielder…I’ll take Stu Holden. All these guys are competitors who you can count on when times get rough and they’ll all put in a shift.
“As a reserve forward, I’ll put Brian McBride in there. I think young U.S. forwards should model their approach to the game on him.
“As a player and as a person he was one of the best leaders from the front. He scored so many but he also had that balance of being a true team player.”
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