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Boca's Back: Carlos Bocanegra Returns to Chicago

CHICAGO (July 7, 2004) - Defender Carlos Bocanegra is making a return to Chicagoland this week, but this time he won’t be wearing the Fire red and white, or facing off against Eastern Conference rivals.  Instead, the former Chicago Fire star is returning to Soldier Field wearing the red, white, and blue of the U.S Men’s National Team, and playing against Poland in the newly renovated stadium.

“It’s great to be back here,” said Bocanegra, who arrived in the Windy City earlier this week in preparation for Sunday’s friendly. “I know the city well and the fans are obviously great to play for, so I’m excited for Sunday to be able to play back in Chicago.”

The 25-year old, who has 25 caps in two and a half years under manager Bruce Arena going into this weekend, was part of the first generation of Americans to go the “New American Route” that propelled him onto the international soccer scene.  Bocanegra spent time with both the Under-20 and Under-23 Men’s National Teams in 1999, and played every minute for the U-20s in the FIFA World Youth Championships in Nigeria that year.

His international experience with the youth teams overlapped with college at UCLA, where he was an All-American in 1999, and helped him earn a spot in the Nike Project-40 program.  He then made his MLS debut in 2000, earning Rookie of the Year honors with the Fire, and in 2001 and 2002 he was named to the MLS Best XI, and was also the MLS Defender of the Year in both seasons.

His stand-out years in the MLS led to opportunities with the national team, and the challenging task of playing overseas in the English Premier League, signing with Fulham in early January and is now one of six Americans to be currently playing in the EPL.

“I think the process is different for everyone,” said the defender, nicknamed Los. “I know quite a few guys who are happy in the MLS, living in the states. It’s really on an individual basis.  Hopefully for the guys who would like to [go overseas] I can help pave the way for them I guess you could say.”

Last year, Bocanegra had his finest year of his career with the MNT, earning Chevrolet Man of the Match honors three times as he became the first U.S. defender since 1994 to score four goals in one year.  He made 13 appearances for the national team, the most by a defender, and now has World Cup qualifying experience after playing the full 90 minutes against Grenada at Crew Stadium on June 13.

On Sunday, he will be joined on the U.S. roster by Fulham teammate Brian McBride, who’s experience playing overseas has helped him make the transition.

“It’s been great having him with me over there,” he said. “He’s there if I need to talk to him. We try to hang out and stuff, deal with our problems together.”

“There are quite a bit of foreign players over there, but they’ve been nice to us for the most part. Every once in a while you get a crazy fan, but I don’t think it’s directed towards Americans, I think it’s mostly because we’re on the opposing team.   It’s been good, we blend in pretty well.”

After two and a half years with the full national team and six months in London, Bocanegra has been leading by example in both practices and games. 

“There are different kinds of leadership roles,” Bocanegra said. “Obviously Claudio and a few of the other veterans have a different kind of role than myself, so I just try to come out and play hard and have my leadership rub off from the way I play, by working hard.”

Right now, Bocanegra has his sights set on helping the United States continue their six-game unbeaten streak this weekend against a strong Polish side.  So far this year, he has appeared in five games, including the 1-0 shutout victory against Poland in Plock on March 31, helping a defense that has held opponents to just two goals in those five games.

Down the road though, he hopes to continue building on his experiences with the national team through the upcoming World Cup qualifiers and has his sights set on Germany 2006.

“I would like to play in a World Cup first and foremost, and I’m sure after that my goals with the national team will change,” he said.