The face was familiar, but the moment was still jarring.
Here was Carlos Bocanegra, standing in the visitors' locker room at PPL Park after the Union beat Chivas USA this past Friday.
It was supposed to be a moment of journalistic detachment. And it was: I was getting my audio recorder ready and I had a few questions written down.
And I knew he was going to be there, as he had recently signed with Chivas USA. A few of us in the press box had arranged for a postgame interview even though he didn't play.
As we gathered next to Bocanegra, I couldn't help thinking about the circumstances of the moment. Surely if I was ever going to interview him at PPL Park, it would be in a mixed zone after a U.S. national team game. After all, he was the U.S. national team's captain for many years.
Over the last year and a half, though, it all came apart. Bocanegra's form fell drastically right at the same time that his club, Scottish power Rangers, went bankrupt. So he was off on a race to find another club. He almost came to MLS last year, but couldn't get a deal done. Finally, just before the start of the 2013-14 season, he signed on with Racing Santander in Spain.
But that wasn't enough to save his standing with the national team. And maybe it never would have been. With a new generation of players on the rise, Jurgen Klinsmann simply dropped Bocanegra from the national team when the second round of World Cup qualifying started this year. There was no ceremony, no farewell. Just a roster that Bocanegra wasn't on, and that was it.
Now, finally, the southern California native is back in his home country. A professional career that began 13 years ago with the Chicago Fire has come full circle.
Whether Bocanegra's time with the national team has truly expired is a question that only he and Klinsmann can answer.
In the meantime, Bocanegra's plate is full as he settles in with his new club. Here's what he had to say about his past, present and future.
How does it feel to be back in Major League Soccer?
Good. I'm excited to get going here with the team. I've spent a week with them now and am getting to know the guys a little bit here. And getting back in the swing of things here with America and how things work in MLS. I'm looking forward to getting back out on the field and competing.
When did you know that Chivas USA was going to be the team that you would come back to?
I didn't find out until a little bit before it happened. I was made aware that Toronto, I guess, was the one that had my rights, and they were doing the wheeling and dealing. I let my agent deal with that stuff - I don't get involved too much.
And then at the end, he made me aware that Chivas was making a big push for me. They said some nice things, and they were excited to have me come be a part of the team. It felt good, so I was excited to come here. Obviously, it's nice as well that I'm from southern California, so that was a good fit. Now I'm just ready to get on the field.
How do you feel physically, as far as being ready to play?
Yeah, pretty good. Tonight, I don't think I could have gone 90 anyways. I was off for a little bit but I've been doing stuff as well, so I'm not completely out of shape. I don't know if I'm 90 minutes fit at top level yet, but I've got to get out there and push through it one of these games. So sooner than later I'd like to get out there and grind through it.
Is it a frustrating process to not necessarily know where you're going, with all the rules about Americans coming to the league from abroad? Robbie Rogers and other guys have been through this lately.
They obviously have different rules and regulations here, but one thing I've noticed about the league since I've come back - I've been in Europe for nine years, in different leagues and different countries - you come back here and it's organized. They might have their different rules, but I get my hotel, a rental car - they have everything in place.
They've done a fantastic job growing the league since I left and have come back. Coming here to PPL Park, getting to see new stadiums built like this around the country, it's really cool. So all those things I'm really impressed by, with how well the league functions. They have a good business model going.
How far has the league come on the field since you left?
It looks good. We have 20 teams with New York City FC coming. I don't remember how many we had when I left - 12 [or] 13* - but obviously you see the players are getting better. Everybody pretty much has their own soccer-specific stadium, bar a few, which is awesome. The fan support is amazing. It's on TV a lot more. With all of those things, it has grown leaps and bounds since I've been back.
* - It was actually 10 when Bocanegra left the Chicago Fire after the 2003 season. A quick history lesson if you didn't know: After the original 10 teams formed the league in 1996, Chicago and Miami joined in 1998. There were 12 teams through 2001, at which point Miami and Tampa contracted.
The long wave of expansion that will culminate (or maybe not) with NYC FC began in 2005, when Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA joined the league. The 2013 season is MLS' first since 2004 in which it has not added a team.
Another veteran U.S. national team defender, Clarence Godson, signed with the San Jose Earthquakes at around the time when you joined Chivas. He said that some Americans in Europe now want to come back to MLS because they will get more playing time and exposure, and the caliber of play is high enough to earn the national team's attention.
As you traveled around Europe and talked to other Americans abroad, what was the discussion about MLS like?
I didn't talk to too many Americans per se about that, but a lot of people asked about the league. They see it on TV and they say oh, it looks quite physical and athletic. And it is - there' s a lot of athletes in this league, and it's a physical game out there. I think maybe technically it's not quite as high as some of the top leagues in Europe, but that will come. We're still fairly young. We still have time to grow.
The league is strong, and it's a tough league to play in. The perception in Europe is good, that it's not just a place to come back to and enjoy America.
Have you had any conversations with U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann since you got back?
Yeah, I've spoken to him a few times. We have a fairly constant dialogue. We're on good terms. We speak freely with each other. We leave it out there and I'm sure we'll speak again fairly soon.