Carlos Bocanegra was a rock for Chivas USA in 2014, and then it was over in an instant.
The former U.S. Men's National Team fixture, entering his second season with CUSA, was named captain by new coach Wilmer Cabrera, and though his skills weren't what they were at his peak while playing in Europe, Bocanegra did bring stability, experience and a quiet leadership to the Goats.
Partnered most of the time with Bobby Burling, Bocanegra did get opportunities to work with Eriq Zavaleta and Andrew Jean-Baptiste in game situations too, and with Zavaleta in particular, might have initiated the start of an old/slow-young/fast partnership.
But Chivas visited RFK Stadium on July 20, bright-eyed and bushy tailed on the heels of a four-game winning streak, and seeing the road game against D.C. United to be a litmus test for the rebuilding team.
The Goats got their butts kicked, 3-1, and to add insult to injury, Bocanegra sustained a concussion in the game that ended his playing career. I've gone back and rewatched the game to see exactly what happened, but the fateful blow wasn't televised.
After several weeks of the team saying Captain America was working on a return, everyone faced the music publicly, and the 35-year-old announced his retirement at the end of the season. He never made another appearance, and while he hasn't spoken about dealing with the post-concussion symptoms, former LA Galaxy forward Rob Friend, who also retired after the season due to post-concussion problems, indicated Bocanegra was also still struggling:
"We have the same symptoms. He's still struggling," Friend said. "It's been nice to throw ideas at each other, what's working and what's not, but it's nice to go through it with someone, because at times I don't understand what's going on. I just don't get it. It's not normal."
Clearly, it's not worth one's future health to play a few more soccer games. And it was the end of the line for Bocanegra, regardless of what a shame it was that it had to end that way.
Here were Bocanegra's statistics in 2014:
|Games Played||Games Started||Minutes||Goals||Assists||Shots||SOG||Yellow Cards||Red Cards|
|MLS Regular Season||18||18||1,620||0||0||4||1||1||0|
|U.S. Open Cup||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||0|
Now, in assessing Bocanegra's final season, it's a bit tricky, considering everything that was happening. Though he was often lined up alongside Burling in the middle, the fullback positions experienced quite a bit of turnover during the season and there were no returning faces in those positions, since Chivas brass had the less-than-brilliant idea of not actually having fullbacks on the roster in 2013.
With a new coach, a slew of new teammates, and uncertainty over the club's future, the team was not particularly stable, even if 2014 represented a major improvement on-field in that department from the previous year. But Chivas' defense was still poor, with Cabrera opting to play a high line for much of the season that did not suit Bocanegra's strengths, and the team shipped in goals once again.
However, once he left the lineup for good in late-July (and keep in mind that he played in 18 of Chivas' first 20 games across all competitions before the concussion against D.C.) the team truly fell off a cliff. They lost 10 of their next 11 games, including games where they lost 3-0 (four separate times), 4-2 (twice), and 4-0. With Bocanegra in the lineup, would those losses have been draws or wins? Probably not in most cases, especially with the attack sputtering at that point, but the embarrassing goal margins may not have been as bad in all of those cases with him on the field, actually organizing a rather-weak defense.
It wasn't until Nigel Reo-Coker joined the team that CUSA got an on-field general again, and not until Cabrera played a true counterattacking style that the team found their bearings again, in the final month of the season. Of course, that turned out to be a false dawn, since the team has folded and been busted up in the meantime.
For Bocanegra, again, it was a subdued ending to one of the best careers by an American soccer player, ever. MLS Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year, playing in the English Premier League, Ligue 1, the Scottish Premier League, captaining the USMNT through some incredible memories in a national team career that spanned more than a decade and over 100 caps, Bocanegra was a legend of the game. As a defender, he won't get the same plaudits that attacking stars tend to get, but he was a solid player who blazed quite a trail.
With Chivas, his signing indicated the Vergara regime's policy of only signing Mexico-eligible Latinos was over, and though Boca is of course Latino himself, his connection to the USMNT showed the club was not going to proceed whole hog in turning Chivas USA into a Chivas de Guadalajara farm team.
Chivas USA won no trophies and lost far more games than they won with Bocanegra on the team, but he brought leadership and yes, skill on a team that desperately needed an upgrade in defense. He may not have gotten the sendoff he deserved, but here's hoping his mind clears up and he's healthy, in whatever he does from here on out.
What do you think? Leave a comment below!