Pastorino: Bocanegra flourishing with U.S. team

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Almost 10 years ago, a bleach-blond soccer player from UCLA pedaled an exercise bicycle on one of the first days of Major League Soccer preseason in the far north suburbs of Chicago.

The rookie's name was Carlos Bocanegra and everyone had told him he was a great athlete and an important U.S. soccer prospect.

But no one was ready to put him in the same class as America's most imposing defenders -- guys like Eddie Pope, Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa.

What a difference a decade makes.

Bocanegra, who makes his Rio Tinto Stadium debut tomorrow, is now captain of the USA Men's National Team. A win over El Salvador will propel him closer to his goal of a second World Cup.

The fresh-faced rookie has become one of the leaders or, in harsher terms, one of the old guys.

Back in 2000, he was fortunate enough to be drafted (fourth overall out of UCLA) by a championship-caliber Chicago Fire organization that featured several individuals who would have a huge influence on his development on and off the field.

His first professional coach was none other than current National Team coach Bob Bradley.

His on field "apprenticeship" came under Lubos Kubik and Peter Nowak, two Europeans whose sharp elbows, chiseled faces and international pedigrees, contrasting dramatically with the easy going kid from SoCal.

Bocanegra watched, listened and learned -- and those players plus Fire stalwarts Chris Armas and C.J. Brown molded him, he said Wednesday.

If he arrived to Chicago that spring hyped more as a great (American) football player who was learning soccer quickly, he left the Fire four years later more cultured and mature -- a European-esque footballer.

Fulham was his first stop. Playing a physical position in the world's toughest league, Bocanegra flourished like his national team teammates, Gregg Berhalter and Steve Cherundolo, who built decade-long careers as defenders in Europe.

A year ago, Bocanegra signed with French club Rennes, which he helped lead to the French Cup final in his first season.

He returns stateside as the leader.

After USA captain Claudio Reyna retired after the 2006 World Cup, as did veterans Pope, Brian McBride and Kasey Keller, he was selected again by Bradley -- this time to be captain.

He is called upon to help organize what he characterizes as a "pretty young team" through this critical final phase of qualifying -- and the likely trip to South Africa next summer to seek World Cup glory for the USA.

It's a challenge he readily accepts, invoking lessons he's learned along the way from some of the best.

Be patient. Don't make mistakes.

Take advantage of opportunities. These are the keys to the U.S. game plan, he said.

Sounds like his career track as well.

He acknowledged that he has grown to appreciate soccer more every day, realizing that he's approaching the end of his playing days.

He has a few more years to give in Europe, he said, but he says he'd like to finish where he started -- in Major League Soccer.

Chicago would no doubt welcome him back.

STEVE PASTORINO is the former general manager for Real Salt lake and an occasional contributer to The Salt Lake Tribune on soccer. He welcomes your comments at