Bocanegra joined the Fire in 2000

Boca's Back

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 88th 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.