[U.S. SPOTLIGHT] On the eve of playing his first game under new U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, captain Carlos Bocanegra changed clubs and leagues via a sudden transfer from Saint-Etienne to legendary Scottish club Rangers.
Strange as it sounds, zipping through several European countries, then jetting from Glasgow to Los Angeles and on to Brussels revived and recharged USA captain and Bocanegra.
That punishing travel schedule would wipe out most mere mortals, but international soccer players learn to cope. And for Americans, any chance to regroup with the national team is worth the hours and miles and time zones.
“The last few weeks have been pretty busy for a soccer player in our world,” said Bocanegra while training in Southern California prior to the USA’s game against Costa Rica last week. “There’s been a little bit of travel, getting settled in a hotel in Glasgow, which is always the case when you change teams, and then obviously there’s the national team game bringing us out here to LA, but I like it, man. I love coming out with the national team. You just live out of a suitcase and hit the ground running.”
Though he admits the deal came together in just two days earlier this month, he’d first heard rumblings last month prior to USA-Mexico. Conveniently, he was able to get some research done with one of its ex-players who happened to be in attendance at the camp, former U.S. midfielder Claudio Reyna.
“My situation in France was great,” says Bocanegra, who has readying himself for his second season at Saint-Etienne. “I really liked it there: the coaches, the players, our team, living in the region, everything about it was great, so I wasn’t expecting anything.”
Once he caught wind something might happen in the few weeks remaining in the European transfer window, Bocanegra began researching. Among his five European clubs, Reyna played for Rangers from 1999 to 2001, scoring 10 goals in 64 appearances.
“I spoke at length with Claudio Reyna at the Mexico camp, asking him about Rangers and his experiences,” says Bocanegra. “We had a great conversation about the club and its history and how popular it is all around Europe and in America and everywhere, so for me it was kind of a no-brainer. When they came calling, I was thinking, I can’t pass up this opportunity with this fantastic club with so much tradition."
The move obviously surprised Saint-Etienne as well. The club had named him captain as it prepared to open the French league season and when Coach Christophe Galtier heard about the bid from Rangers, his dismissive and disdainful response reeked of disappointment.
“Rangers may want Carlos but we don't want to sell him,” he said at the time to the Scottish Daily Record. “He's under contract to us so we decide whether or not to sell. I don't want to sell him. He’s an important member of my team and I want him to stay that way.”
Galtier’s tough talk only delayed the inevitable, and didn’t delay it very long. Rangers so speeded up the process that Bocanegra joined the club in Slovenia, concluded negotiations and signed the contract, and played a Europa League qualifier Aug. 18. Three days had elapsed after first news of the bid broke. The opponent, Slovenia's Maribor, protested his participation on the grounds Rangers had yet to register him to compete in league play. (UEFA eventually dismissed Maribor’s objection.)
“It came on quickly,” remembers Bocanegra. “From Monday [Aug. 15] to when I signed on Wednesday it kind of escalated like that. Right away it was like, “Whoa,” it’s right there in your face and I’ve got to make a decision.”
Rangers lost, 2-1, to Maribor in the first leg, compounding the disappointment of earlier in the month losing its Champions League playoff to Swedish club Malmo, 2-1, on aggregate. As his new teammates slept on their return flight from Maribor to Glasgow, Bocanegra drove to Graz, Austria, then hopped on a plane to France (his most recent place of employment) to secure the paperwork and visa to be eligible for a league match at Motherwell on Sunday, Aug. 21.
He didn’t make it. Both he and U.S. teammate Alejandro Bedoya, whose move to Rangers preceded his by a few days, were unable to obtain their visas. Still, Rangers thrashed Motherwell, 3-0. Despite not seeing the field for his league debut for Rangers, he got his first taste of what it means to play for a club with a world record 54 league titles to its credit, and fans scattered across the globe.
“Their manager [Stuart McCall] is a former Rangers assistant who had them very well organized and they’re a decent team, so it’s not like a pub league,” says Bocanegra. “It’s still a good level. It’s not the Premiership but it’s a good level and I get a chance to play in Europe.” (McCall also played for Rangers from 1991 to 1998 as a teammate of the manager who signed Bocanegra, Ally McCoist.)
Rangers faltered in the second leg against Maribor and was eliminated. Those recent European failures notwithstanding, Rangers is always in contention for a spot in continental competition. He has two U.S. teammates on hand in Maurice Edu and Bedoya. Those factors, plus the crushing expectations placed upon the team by its rabid, demanding supporters, are more than enough to convince Bocanegra that he’s tackled a bigger obstacle and not regressed by leaving France for Scotland.
“I’m not going to say the level in Scotland is the same as the Premiership, it’s a little bit less,” says Bocanegra, who started his European career with a move to Fulham in 2004. He has since played in France for Rennes as well as Saint-Etienne. Now, it’s Rangers, a club charged by more than a century of tradition and strong sectarian underpinnings. Its crowds can be as raw and nasty as the sleet in January. They are also among the loudest and fiercest in Europe and many are the good teams who have crumbled at Ibrox Park.
“There’s different pressure at Rangers,” says Bocaengra. “There’s pressure to win, pressure to win with style, pressure to win the league, no matter what, home or away. So it’s a different challenge for me and it’s something I’m liking.”
McCoist, the club’s all-time leader in goals (351) has already praised Bocanegra for his efforts to reach Slovenia in time to represent his new club. “His attitude is brilliant,” said McCoist. “It has been difficult to make signings at times and people are rightly asking questions about who is coming in and when. But Bocanegra's approach has been first-class.
“He has been a breath of fresh air since joining up with us. I cannot tell you the efforts he made to come to the club itself and then to actually get to Maribor to play the game. That is the kind of thing that keeps me going -- Bocanegra has given me a real boost.”
Bocanegra believes this move will boost his career as well, at age 32. Though he’s already had to step in at left back, McCoist has assured him of a role he relishes. “That’s not a problem, I can do a job out there, I just think I bring more to the table in the middle and he does as well,” says Bocanegra of the left back/centerback dilemma. “I’m happy I’m going to be playing in the middle and being a bit more physical.
“I do like the physical contact part of it. He’s adamant about me playing in the center, either on the left of a three-man back line as kind of a marking back, or the left-sided center-half in a back four. Hopefully I’ll be on a team that wins the league and gets a chance at a European title.”
While those may seem to be fanciful dreams, he’s certainly closer to fulfilling his ambition to play in the Champions League than he could ever be at Fulham or in France. At this late stage of his career, and a spot on the USA’s 2014 World Cup team iffy at best, if not now, when?
“I’ve never played in that competition,” he says. “I’ve been watching it two or three games a week for years from my couch, just thinking how cool it would be to walk out there. I don’t know if they play the Heineken music in the stadium but for me it would be an incredible opportunity. I’m really excited about playing for Rangers.”