The NSCAA Convention creates stories well beyond the MLS and NWSL drafts. With thousands of soccer minds under the same roof, you’re as likely to run into a well-known former player as you are a well-known coach.
Over the course of this week, I’ll be posting interviews with personalities I came across during the convention. First up is former U.S. national team captain and current Chivas USA central defender Carlos Bocanegra. He gave a seminar on leadership in soccer that was very well-attended.
In addition to his playing career, Bocanegra helped found a soccer training center in southern California. The facility, which opened in 2011, attracts many well-known American players during their offseasons. Nick Rimando and Maurice Edu are among those who’ve paid a visit.
The opportunity came along for a few reporters to chat with Bocanegra this past Friday. As he has always been when I’ve talked to him, Bocanegra was candid and forthright about a range of topics in American soccer.
How’s life treating you at Chivas?
I can’t complain. Obviously the season didn’t go very well last year. We took some bad losses at the end of the season. We need some consistency there. So hopefully in getting Wilmer [Cabrera, the team’s new manager], he’ll be in place for a while, and we can start to build something.
We’ve made some pretty decent acquisitions in the offseason, with [Mauro] Rosales and a few others, to get some strength into the team. We’ve also brought in some veteran leadership - I don’t know if they’ve all been announced yet, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to say things about that.
They have introduced former Mexican national team star Adolfo “Bofo” Bautista.
Ah, I wasn’t speaking about him though.
Is it difficult to go through all those transitions, and to have such a lack of consistency?
Yeah, it’s hard for the players. But the club in general - and I think they know this - they need some consistency, from top to bottom. Because if things are always changing, the players can wonder what’s going on. That’s not an excuse for the product on the field, but it’s just not always great to be a part of.
A lot of the things that you’ll hear and read in the media about Chivas - there’s no hiding that it hasn’t been a greatly-run organization for the past however many years. But a lot of that stuff does not trickle down to us in the locker room or on the field.
We travel the same as every other team in MLS. We have the same per diems and stay at the same hotels. We have an unbelievable training facility with all the stuff we need, [including] a chef for after-training who does great food.
So you’re happy.
Yeah. I can’t really complain too much. I’ve been in far worse situations in my career than this.
Chivas USA has a lot of goals on and off the field in terms of how they present themselves and build a fan base in addition to winning. Do you think Wilmer Cabrera is the right guy to bring all that together and make the team successful?
I don’t know, and to be honest, I don’t know exactly how they want to present themselves at the moment.
Did they reach out to you to help build that image?
When they brought me on board - I’m from southern California, I’m Mexican-American, I captained the U.S. national team. So I think on the outside-the-field stuff, it hit a lot of targets. I hope they brought me there for my soccer ability as well - that would be an important thing.
But as far as Wilmer, yeah, I’ve heard he has done a good job with his teams and is a good coach. He was a really good player who played in a few World Cups.* So hopefully it works out, and obviously all the guys are going to get behind him and try to do the best we can for him. Hopefully we can get some consistency and he stays around for a while.
[* - Technically, Bocanegra wasn’t quite right on that, but he was close. Cabrera was part of Colombia’s national team at the 1990 and 1998 World Cups. He didn’t play in ’90, but did play in three games in ’98.]
I know that Francisco “Paco” Palencia, the longtime Mexican star, plays a significant front-office role with Chivas USA as the team’s director of soccer. At least on this side of the country, we haven’t heard all that much from him about his goals for the organization.
How much have you talked to him so far, and how much is he involved in day-to-day operations? And how much is owner Jorge Vergara involved?
I ask in part because there are some owners in MLS who are very public figures and some who remain in the shadows. Vergara is certainly well-known, but he doesn’t seem from afar to have too much of a hand in running Chivas USA.
I don’t know much about [Vergara] either, and I haven’t met him. I know he’s the owner, that’s about it. I don’t know how much he is involved, to be honest.
What do you make of the increasing emphasis on homegrown players and academies in Major League Soccer?
I think it’s good. It’s showing that teams are putting in the resources to invest in these academies and youth, and that’s the way to go forward. We want our top young talent staying here in America, and if they can get these guys in a professional environment sooner rather than later, I think they’re going to have the best chance to be successful, and grow up quicker and become better professionals.
Does that help give college soccer a place in the landscape, since homegrown players can go to college and then straight to their MLS teams, instead of going through the draft?
Yeah, I like that. I think education is very important, especially in this country, and I think it would be sad to have a 16-year-old come in and not get his college education if that’s something he was wanting to do.
In recent years, the American soccer community has gotten better at scouting Mexican-American kids and bringing them into the development system. That has paid off with players like Daniel Cuevas and Benji Joya, who have been with the U.S. Under-20 national team recently. Chivas USA has a very strong academy program, and has sent a number of its players to U.S. youth national teams.
At the same time, all of a sudden the Mexican clubs are realizing that there’s a lot of talent up here, as evidenced by Cruz Azul’s recent move for a trio of players in MLS. That got a lot of attention, and now some people are wondering whether the Mexican league can really become a viable option for American players. What can MLS do to counter that and keep American talent in this country?
The Mexican teams have been coming into southern California for as long as I can remember, so that’s nothing new for us. Maybe the fact that they are actually taking players - it’s pretty cool, and it also shows how players have done well in MLS and have been seen.
There’s a little bit more money in the Mexican league across the board, and I think that’s obviously appealing to players. But we’re always going to compete. Everybody is looking for talent no matter what. Ten years ago you could argue that very few Americans are playing in Europe, and now there are quite a few. Though a lot did just come back.
What do you make of those moves by Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and others?
It’s their choice. It’s everybody’s choice. And MLS is not a bad league. I don’t think it has that stigma anymore. Quite a few people that I played with on teams over there [in Europe] follow it and know what’s going on. It’s a super-athletic league, and very physical. Technically it’s maybe not one of the best in the world, but that’s made up for athletically and with the physicality of everything.
Then you’ve got a few teams that can play pretty well. When we played Seattle last year, that was some of the best movement in attack I’ve seen as a defender. And Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey weren’t playing. So you can imagine with them.
As we talk about these guys coming back, it’s hard to ignore the collective bargaining negotiations that are coming later this year for MLS and the Players’ Union. I know this is something you’ve had an interest in for a long time. How important is it going to be to raise not just the salaries of stars in MLS, but salaries for “middle-class” and young players as well?
As a player, obviously we want more money. So I’d be silly to not say yeah, that would be great. The league frustrates me with some things but what I will give them credit for is that you’re not going to make everybody happy, so as a business, you need to run it how you see it is going to work. They’ve done a great job with that. Their business model to be sustainable and grow slowly has been fantastic.
Everybody wants to make more money in any profession. We get to play soccer in America and get paid well. Now, you’re on a homegrown salary, you’re also still a young kid, and you need to earn it. You can’t just expect to come into IBM and get a managing director’s job and make $1 million a year. So it’s pretty relative. With the CBA coming up, the minimums increase year by year - a little bit, anyways. The league is sustainable, that’s the most important thing.
And then I would hope there will be some sort of free agency in the league. I think that would be pretty cool to see. I don’t know how to do it - even restricted free agency, something. I don’t know all the terms that go into that stuff, but it would be cool that if the player leaves the the rights are not withheld, or they have to trade him to another team. Because I think that hurts the players in the end.
The league can still mandate that they are not going to be paid $300,000. They can say you are going to be paid $200,00, but you don’t need to pay allocation money plus this or that, etc. I don’t understand all the things in that - as I said, I’m not a businessman. They are doing a very good job running the league. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. It is just something I would like to see.
To follow up on that, since I know this is something that affected you when you returned to MLS: How many guys do you know in Europe who have said to you that they’d love to play in MLS if they could pick the team they’d be joining? The allocation system has come up more and more often as a point of contention for people who follow the league.
Not only that they would pick the team. They see Hollywood and New York and they don’t know too much about America. “Where’s Columbus?” and stuff like that. So yes, I would have enjoyed being able to choose where I would have come back to. That’s a little bit of the free agency thing, with that allocation draft.
But it’s working at the moment. They try to get parity throughout the league, which is important. That you don’t just have a Yankees dominating.
I would not have minded going to Kansas City. I would not have minded going to Columbus. That was not a huge issue for me. If I could have picked, that would have been even better.
But I also think that now that these teams have the DP slots and so forth, the players that are coming back to America - take, for instance, Benny Feilhaber. He’s in Kansas City now. Say he went there directly. He’s a California boy and maybe he doesn’t want to be there, but when he got there, he was like, “This city is awesome,” and he fell in love with the club.
So I don’t think it’s so much that the teams would say that no one would go to Columbus or Kansas City because they aren’t “beautiful” cities. I don’t think it’s like that anymore. People want to go to good teams, and if they’re going to get paid properly, or if they have a good organization and their own stadium. All that stuff matters.
Okay, one more. And I know it might be a sensitive subject, but here goes: What do you think the United States’ starting back line at the World Cup will be?
I don’t know. I would imagine you’ll have Omar [González] and Matt [Besler] in the middle, and then probably [DaMarcus] Beasley and maybe Stevie [Cherundolo] on the right if he’s healthy, or [Brad] Evans. It will be interesting.
The thing about that is that it’s so hard to say now because you know how much changes leading up to a World Cup. There are injuries, suspensions, form, etc. So it doesn’t seem like it’s far out, but it’s still quite far out. Our league still isn’t in season right now.