The cream of the rookie class
The lives of Nick Garcia and Carlos Bocanegra were entwined long before they emerged as the top candidates for MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2000.
They were teammates on U.S. U-20 national team that reached the second round at the 1999 World Youth Championships in Nigeria. They played against each other in college for teams that won the NCAA titles in 1997, 1998 and 1999 before leaving college a year early.
And within a few weeks of embarking on their professional careers last March, it was clear both could be vital members of their MLS teams.
Coach Bob Gansler plugged Garcia straight into the Wizards' starting lineup and Kansas City reeled off a 12-game unbeaten streak to start the season. Chicago traded veteran defender Francis Okaroh after Bocanegra proved he could handle a starting spot.
They finished just two points apart in the Rookie of the Year vote, which Bocanegra won to add another entry on his side of the ledger. Yet Garcia and Kansas City won the MLS title, which gave Garcia three straight crowns when tacked onto the pair he won with Indiana in 1998 and 1999.
HEAD TO HEAD. Garcia developed enough respect for Bocanegra during their time together with the U-20 team to call him one of the toughest opponents he'd ever faced.
"In small-sided games and one-v.-one training, he was always going hard," said Garcia. "We all want to win every ball, but he just wouldn't quit or let you relax."
The second goal scored by the U.S. U-20s against Cameroon in a 3-1 first-round win came on a free kick that Francisco Gomez - now Garcia's teammate on the Wizards - flighted into the box and Garcia set up for Bocanegra.
"I had an open net," said Bocanegra. "He went to the back post and headed it across, and all I had to do was knock it in."
Garcia played defensive midfielder for the U-20s, the same position he'd played until Indiana coach Jerry Yeagley converted him into a defender.
"I think my international experience with the national teams definitely helped me make the adjustment to MLS," said Garcia, who also played for the U.S. under-17 team at the 1995 world championships in Ecuador.
"It's true that a guy who had played in college might be in awe when he first comes to MLS. But that wasn't the case with me, and it wasn't with Carlos, either."
Garcia was the second player chosen in the 2000 draft, Bocanegra was the fourth. After MLS preseason training in Florida following the Feb. 6 draft, Chicago headed to Mexico and Kansas City traveled to Bolivia for preseason tours.
"We had all sorts of things go wrong," said Garcia. "We were told we were going to train on this beautiful field. The bus pulls up to this cow pasture, with cows and donkeys on it. It was a nightmare. But that's what you have to deal with."
Bocanegra and the Fire dealt with a ravaging run of injuries that knocked out Chris Armas and Lubos Kubik for half of the regular season. "We had a lot of different guys back there, that's for sure," he said.
"We had to play a lot different without Lubos because he holds the ball so well. And losing Chris left a big hole in the middle."
Garcia cited the Wizards' 4-3 win over Chicago March 25 in the first game of the season as one that boosted Kansas City's confidence. It wasn't the defensive gem Garcia might have preferred, but for a team that finished 8-24 in 1999, it was critical.
"We knew we could play better, and so could they, but that did a lot for us," said Garcia. "They had [Hristo Stoitchov], and still we were up 3-0 in the first half. We knew we were on the right track."
Kansas City's 12-game unbeaten streak was snapped by Chicago, of course. At the conclusion of the regular season, each team had 57 points.
Garcia led a defense that allowed just 29 goals, by far the best in MLS. He played every minute of all 32 games. Bocanegra appeared in 27 games.
When they met at RFK Stadium in MLS Cup 2000, Kansas City scraped out a 1-0 win on an opportunistic Miklos Molnar goal, stout goalkeeping by Tony Meola, and timely tackles by several Wizards, including Garcia.
"It was like we were in shock, like it didn't really happen," said Bocanegra. "I didn't really believe it until a few days later."
THE COLLEGE DAYS. Both were named to the Soccer America All-Freshman Team in 1997. So impressive had Garcia been for the Hoosiers that he was named the Freshman of the Year as well as a third team all-American.
But Bocanegra and the Bruins took the bigger prize that season. After nudging Indiana 1-0 in a triple-overtime marathon, UCLA beat Virginia for the title.
"I think they might have been the better team, by a little bit, that year," said Bocanegra. "But I thought we were the better team last year, and they beat us, so maybe that's how it had to even out."
Indiana took its second straight title last year after turning around that three-OT loss in 1997. The Hoosiers knocked off the Bruins in the semis and beat Santa Clara in the final.
Garcia was a first team All-American and Soccer America's MVP in 1999. Bocanegra took second team All-American honors.
"We don't talk much about college, really," said Bocanegra the day the 2000 NCAA final four would match Indiana against Creighton in one of the semifinals. "I usually hang around with the UCLA guys, anyway.
"We talk about the league and certain players and what's going on, but not much about college. They'd better not win three in a row, though."
As it turned out, neither one of their colleges took down the top prize in 2000. But the MLS Rookie of the Year and runner-up will be in the chase for MLS Cup 2001 race that starts next spring.
by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney