LIVIN' LA VIDA BOCA
One can't swing a cat these days without hitting someone willing to sing the praises of Brian McBride, but I'm here to testify that he's not the only Yank enjoying a career year at Craven Cottage this season.
Without much fanfare, Carlos Bocanegra has helped form the Fulham spine, along with McBride and equally gritty midfielder Michael Brown, from two positions. He has provided buttoned-down steadiness amid an ever-changing line-up.
When Papa Bouba Diop went down to an injury, the former Fire man stepped into defensive midfield and displayed a surprising acumen for distribution. While certainly no Frank Rijkaard, Bocanegra patrolled well there until Chris Coleman remembered that Zat Knight is nowhere near as good as English observers would have one believe.
Now firmly back in defense, the American is still putting in complete displays on a regular basis. He is becoming the guy to work away from when playing Fulham, while jumping forward at opportune moments to cause trouble in the other box.
Despite playing towards the back all season, Bocanegra has three goals - a winner and two equalizers. He has taken more shots on goal than all but three of his teammates, scoring as often as forwards Collins John and Tomas Radzinski combined.
It's been business as usual in defense, with 'Los providing a calm, no-nonsense attitude. No, he's not one to fancy his way out of trouble; get it, get it out of danger, far and fast. Bocanegra has always played the physical game required in England, but he has become wilier, seeing yellow only three times this term.
It hasn't always been this way. Bocanegra found out quickly that being a back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year doesn't mean quite as much when your new Premiership coach asks you play wingback.
It took time for him to get used to the speed of play in England's top flight, especially when stationed outside against some of the world's trickiest wing attackers. A horror tackle on Aston Villa's Mark Delaney early in his Fulham tenure had reporters wondering if he was an imported thug.
He started 31 of 33 games in 2004/05, but mistakes were made. At times, he was... erm... periodically posterized. The following season, injury woes slowed his progress. Now, coming down the stretch of his third full season in England, he appears to be the man in control at the back.
Bocanegra responded to the struggles the same way he responded to MLS success. He simply ignored the naysayers, put his head down and worked on his game. The guy that flew over to London in 2003 could not have ably held down defensive midfield throughout the Premier League winter match crunch.
Those needing proof of his growth got it this past weekend, when the #3 shirt put in a grade-A performance against Aston Villa. Not only did he run admirably with Norwegian giraffe John Carew (who was offside on his opener, by the way), Bocanegra repeatedly provided just the play Fulham needed as they grabbed a hard-fought point.
- Bocanegra comes to Ian Pearce's aid, blocking a fierce Shaun Maloney drive from the edge of the area.
- he finds the space to push a Franck Queudrue free kick past Denmark #1 Thomas Sorensen, leveling the score at ones mere seconds after Carew broke the ice. Every other runner makes a beeline for the near post, leaving Bocanegra a wide lane to himself. In other words, the play was written up for him and he delivered.
- he saves a goal by making a fluid swipe as speedy winger Gabriel Agbonlahor attacks an Ashley Young cross on the doorstep. Slide, collect, swivel, clear- now get out of my house.
- he again hustles over to his right, harassing a lock-and-load Carew, who still forces a sweet save from Fulham keeper Antti Niemi.
Granted, the club have conceded 44 goals in 29 outings, but Bocanegra is far less frequently to blame for defensive failings (they have allowed 37 goals in the 26 games he played, or two-thirds a goal less per match). Fulham actually has held the opponent to one goal or less in 16 of their league contests - due to a lack of offensive end product, they only won six of those games.
Furthermore, the Cottagers have usually been chasers this season, making them among the teams most susceptible to counterattacks. In the last 26 matches, Fulham have only scored by halftime on six occasions. There are no easy wins in the black and white half of SW6, and therefore no easy minutes for their defenders.
Fulham sit 13th in the standings, a mite closer to the relegation mire than they are to a European place... that will happen when you post a league-high 12 draws. The sunny side is that the team have rallied for a result nine times. The offense gets the glory, but it was Bocanegra and the defense that made the comebacks possible by holding the fort.
Oddly, many stateside fans will still prefer other choices, still make up their dream USMNT set without his name. To my mind, the absence of Cory Gibbs makes him a first team starter. Bob Bradley coached him in Chicago, and I say he is just a bit more cultured, a bit more athletic than perfectly reasonable options such as Danny Califf, Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit.
Bocanegra has never been a totally popular US selection, and I'll admit some prior reservations had good reason behind them. There have been times he was a source of great frustration. His career path reminds me a bit of Ajax defender Johnny Heitinga, who has also caused wonder over whether some coaches have tried to ruin him with frequent position changes.
Even though the Dutch international is a righty and surely more elegant on the dribble, they do share several similarities. They both like to jump forward wisely and both are monsters on set pieces; in addition to his attack forays, Bocanegra leads a Cottage aerial defense that has only allowed three headed goals this season - only Arsenal has done better.
The goals they score tend to come at the most welcome times. This season, Boca has connected twice in the final six minute (at Newcastle and at Chelsea), plus the aforementioned quick first half reply against Villa. His lone 2005/06 goal was a last minute derby decider against Tottenham.
Each will send the odd stray pass, but they also can deliver a mean diagonal long ball to urge on the attack. Both are quiet types that become quite fiery on the field. They inspire both criticism and devotion on the international scene. Most importantly, they both confidently plow through anything in their way, while remaining humble enough to learn from mistakes.
Like Heitinga, Bocanegra has fought through all of the adversity to become a player that can give the coach what he needs at three positions with negligible drop-off. Charlie Blackmouth will probably never be anybody's bonus baby, but he has gradually come to give the Cottagers their money's worth.
Through the years, he has often been painted as the third best choice in the middle (or the guy to push out to left back) for the US National Team, which I suppose has made it easy for some to write him off for the World Cup at the end of this new cycle. They shouldn't... others will improve, but who's to say that he won't continue to as well?
I know the our central defense pool is deepening, but anybody doubting the suddenly more versatile Bocanegra will make the 2010 World Cup squad - at the prime defender age of 31, no less - clearly hasn't been paying attention to his impressive development.