By Ridge Mahoney
If a move to MLS was meant to kick-start the national team career of defender and former captain Carlos Bocanegra, time is running out.
Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of his last competitive U.S. appearance, a 3-1 win over Guatemala in which he scored his 14th international goal. He also started the following month in a 2-2 tie with Russia in Krasnodar, but departed in the 18th minute with a torn muscle in his left leg.
Since then, the centerback slots have filled up with players younger than the 34-year-old Bocanegra. Omar Gonzalez (25) and Matt Besler (26) are the presumed starting duo, Clarence Goodson (31) is solidly entrenched as first alternate, Geoff Cameron (28) can be counted among the options, and the very young but very talentedJohn Brooks (20) is logging a lot of Bundesliga minutes at Hertha Berlin. Michael Orozco (27) is still in the picture, too.
While that group has no World Cup experience, only Brooks can be classified as a young player. The others either are near their prime or at that point. Can the former captain still contribute to the national team? One former U.S. defender says no, another goes with maybe. They also can’t agree on whether he merits a callup, much less a shot at a World Cup spot.
“That ship has sailed, to be honest,” says Alexi Lalas, who earned 96 caps from 1991 to 1998. “I think that they have moved on. While it might provide another piece of depth for Jurgen a year from now, he’ll be that much older.”
Marcelo Balboa, he of the 128 caps from 1988 to 2000, isn’t quite so dismissive. A Boca sighting is possible, but doubtful. “This is the big thing when Jurgen came in: Boca wasn’t playing, he didn’t call him in, they qualified without him,” says Balboa. “Do you throw him back into the mix now? That’s a great question. I don’t know. I don’t see it.”
However, Balboa also points out that if Klinsmann’s mantra of playing well for your club team as a condition of being called up applies to other players, it should apply to Bocanegra if he plays consistently well in MLS. Still, Klinsmann and the coaching staff must believe there’s enough ability present for the veteran to handle international competition and that is by no means a definite.
“Chivas USA is much stronger up the middle with Carlos and [Bobby] Burling. If you’re playing well you’re going to get a shot,” says Balboa. “Now that he’s fit, should the coaching staff be looking at him? Sure. Why not? You always need some depth.”
It’s fair to say lot of American fans are similarly split in their opinions, even though the USA won the Gold Cup, reeled off a 12-game winning streak, and qualified for the World Cup with two Hexagonal games to spare. Gonzalez’s occasional glitches and nightmare games like Besler’s rough outing in Costa Rica accentuate the costs of relatively inexperienced players manning the centerback slots.
If veteran Steve Cherundolo, who has rarely played the past year and a half while battling injuries, can’t make the squad for Brazil, the USA will go to the World Cup without a regular defender battle-tested in that competition. (DaMarcus Beasley’s World Cup back-line experience came in emergency duty at the 2006 tournament and 10 minutes as an attacking sub against Algeria in 2010.)
Klinsmann’s future plans regarding his roster are split into several components: Who does he pick for the two remaining Hexagonal games in October, a pair of friendlies (one to be announced) in November, or a January camp that begins 2014 preparations, and ultimately for the big dance in Brazil.
Starting with matches against Jamaica and Panama next month, no true clues have come to light. “I have no idea about what he’s going to do other than what I’ve read,” says Lalas, “and that’s kind of cryptic: ‘I’m going to bring my best team.’ Is it my ‘best team’ for this particular moment? I hadn’t heard anything about Bocanegra, and when I think about it, it would surprise me.”
If there were to be a callup, Lalas believes the ground rules should out be laid out and agreed upon by both parties. While his vast experience would obviously be an asset, Klinsmann must also weigh up Bocanegra’s acceptance of what could be a backup role at best.
“In a dynamic standpoint, the locker-room dynamics, this is a guy who’s been with the team for a long time in the past, the captain, and is now coming back into the fold,” points out Lalas. “It has to be very, very clear what the expectation are of him, and the role Jurgen Klinsmann wants him to play going forward.
“None of us are nothing without our egos and those don’t go away. We all have them. Getting players to accept a vastly different role, that takes some doing. Players will tell you one thing and feel something different.”
Lalas cites the example of former U.S. international Cobi Jones, whose long national team career lasted until 2004, though by the time of the 2002 World Cup he was no longer a starter. He was already the most-capped American of all time (he retired with 164 appearances) yet all four of his 2002 World Cup appearances came as a sub. He turned 32 during that tournament; Bocanegra will be three years older when the 2014 event kicks off.
“He knew he wasn’t going to start, he was there for minutes at the end of the game or emergency situations and that kind of stuff,” says Lalas. “He accepted it. Did he relish it? No, but there was an acceptance and understanding from the get-go of what his role was.”
While the centerback corps looks fairly deep right now, a lot can change in the next nine months. Klinsmann has done a very good job of inculcating the squad with depth, yet it wouldn’t take much -- a key injury in the next few months and another next spring, for example -- to thin out the centerback slots. Seldom does a U.S. roster not change because of injury in the run-up to a major competition, and there’s always the possibility he could raise his game sufficiently to challenge the current group.
“Jurgen and the coaching staff have to decide,” says Balboa. “Does he fit into the group, does he disrupt the group, or can he help the group? That’s the point Carlos is at right now with the national team.”