Boca's Back

Former defender returns to Chicago for friendly

It seems fitting during the Chicago Fire’s 13th
year anniversary week, the U.S. Men’s National Team, chalk full of club alumni,
is in town ahead of their friendly against Poland Saturday night at Soldier
Field.

Bob Bradley, the club’s first manager, recently re-upped
with the U.S. Soccer Federation to lead the men’s national team through the
2014 World Cup. Featured on his coaching staff are three former Fire players in
Jesse Marsch, Lubos Kubik and Mike Sorber, while the side’s captain, Carlos
Bocanegra is a Fire legend in his own right.

The veteran of 84 U.S. appearances was happy to be back in
Chicago, the place where he started his professional career, winning MLS Rookie
of the Year honors in 2000.

“You guys got some nice weather for us this week,” said the
U.S. skipper. “It’s obviously great to be back, staying downtown. I love this
city and I’m glad to be able to come here and train at Toyota Park. I never got
to play here so it’s cool to see how far the Fire have come – from the days of
playing out of the Bears locker room at Soldier Field to now having their own
setup out here. It’s great to see and it’s great to be back in the city.”

Garnering two U.S. Open Cup championships and two MLS Cup final
appearances in his time with the Fire, Bocanegra moved to Fulham FC during the
January 2004 transfer window, going on to carve out one of most impressive
careers of any American defender that has gone abroad.  After appearing in 124 matches for
Fulham from 2004-08, the 31-year-old defender moved to French Ligue 1 side
Stade Rennes in the 2008 summer transfer window where played in 64 matches,
scoring two goals.

After helping the United States to a Round of 16 appearance
at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa this past summer, Bocanegra surprised
some with a move across Ligue 1 to Saint Etienne, who paid Rennes £400,000
transfer fee.
Les Verts have
benefitted from Bocanegra’s services so far this season, riding an eight-match
unbeaten streak and sitting second in the table, ironically enough one point
behind his former club.

“Sometimes in football change happens,” Bocanegra explained
about his summer move. “Maybe you’ve done your thing at the club, sometimes
it’s the coach. Saint Etienne had been after me since the transfer window in
January and it finally worked out this summer. I was happy to make the change –
I like their style of play. Our coach [Christophe Galtier] is pretty young,
he’s very close to the group and the guys enjoy playing for him. We have a good
locker room there as well and that helps transfer to the play on the field.
We’re scoring, we’re defending well – it’s a good combination. Hopefully we can
keep it up and we’ll see what happens this year.”

Saturday’s match is actually the second time Bocanegra has
returned from abroad to Chicago for a game against Poland at Soldier Field. On
July 11, 2004 the former Fire defender’s 88
th minute header from a
Landon Donovan corner kick served as the U.S. equalizer in a 1-1 draw with the
Poles.

“It was just kind of a free header,” said Bocanegra about
the goal. “You know it’s always fun to play here in Chicago and also fun as a
defender to go up and score goals once and a while.”

The UCLA product has proven to be an offensive force in the
air for his country and with 11 goals is just one behind Marcelo Balboa for
most goals scored by a U.S. defender. He’s also played 44 fewer international
matches than the U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer.

Reminiscing on his time with the Fire, Bocanegra is thankful
for the players that helped him develop as he entered the league and though he
doesn’t have one moment that sticks out, he rates the team camaraderie in those
days as his favorite Fire memory.

“The times I spent hanging out with the guys were the best.
We had a really good group when I was here and I was lucky to have some good
older players to guide me when I came into the league: Nowak, Stoitchkov,
Marsch, Kubik, Armas, Thornton, Gutierrez and of course C.J. Brown. There’s so
many down that list that were great role models for young guys that were just
coming in and I was fortunate to be put in that situation. It was fun playing
with them because we enjoyed getting together off the field as well – having
barbecues on Sunday at whoever’s house. 
I enjoyed that.”

As for Friday’s Anniversary game against the Columbus Crew,
Bocanegra won’t be in attendance as he prepares for the next day’s friendly,
but had well wishes for his former club.

“I still follow the Fire wherever I am. I wish them luck on
Friday night and hope for them to make the playoffs.”

Catch Carlos Bocanegra tonight for a LIVE edition of US Soccer’s Studio
90 from Small Bar Division (2049 W. Division St.) with a Fan Q&A to follow!

Jeff Crandall is the Team
Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter
@JefeCrandall.