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Thursday, September 1, 2011
Bocanegra's qualities key in Klinsmann's scheme

By Scott French

Carlos Bocanegra
Carlos Bocanegra will be an integral part of Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup for the U.S. national team.

CARSON -- Jurgen Klinsmann has big plans for the U.S. national team, and some of them involve tightening a suspect backline and blooding young talent into a side going through transition.

There are steps the Yanks need to take under the German legend as they work toward the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with qualifying set to begin late next spring, and captain Carlos Bocanegra, a UCLA product from Alta Loma, knows he'll be playing a pivotal role.

Bocanegra, 32, is foremost among the U.S. side's veteran leaders, in his fifth year as the national team's captain and a fixture in central defense. His importance in shutting down opposing attacks, as vital as that is, might not be as essential as his ability to mentor the youngsters arriving into the program.

“Carlos is extremely important in what we're trying to build,” said Klinsmann, who leads the U.S. against Costa Rica on Friday night at Home Depot Center (ESPN2 and Galavision, 8 p.m.) in his second game since succeeding Bob Bradley at the end of July. “He's a tremendous leader, he's a strong voice, he has an enormous amount of experience.”

Those are valuable tools for Klinsmann's scheme. The new coach has brought in Mexico-based center back Michael Orozco Fiscal, 25, from Orange, and left back Edgar Castillo, 24. He has one German-born (serviceman's son) outside back in Timothy Chandler, at 21 one of the most exciting U.S. finds of the past generation or so, and has introduced another, 23-year-old Fabian Johnson, to the mix.

New York central defender Tim Ream, 23, has become a squad regular, and we're starting to see FC Dallas outside back Zach Loyd, 24. It's just a matter of time for at least two Major League Soccer center backs, the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez, 22, and FC Dallas' George John, 24.

Bocanegra and German-based right back Steve Cherundolo, 32, will play prominent roles in getting all of them, and anyone else who joins the group, up to speed. So will all of the veterans.

“We ask from Carlos to guide these youngsters,” Klinsmann said. “For example, [in the Aug. 10 game] against Mexico, Edgar Castillo, who needs to find his way through step by step, and Michael Orozco were next to [Bocanegra]. His role is really crucial, and he knows that.”

He does, but it's a shared responsibility, he notes.

“Last cycle I was counted on to be a leader, and I think this cycle will be the same thing, maybe more so, with the changeover and an even younger generation coming in,” Bocanegra said. “That's something myself, Landon [Donovan], Timmy [Howard], Stevie [Cherundolo] and now guys like Clint [Dempsey] who have been around awhile, Michael Bradley -- that's something everybody will be called upon to do.”

There's youth throughout the roster and what appears to be a deep, talented group of players a few years away, but shoring up defensive problems that plagued the U.S. under Bradley's tenure, and at times before that, needs to be achieved quickly if the U.S. is going to take the next step in its evolution right now. Klinsmann and his staff already were making adjustments in his first camp, before last month's Mexico friendly.

“It's the same things,” Bocanegra said, “with trying to keep the lines high and make sure the midfielders don't stand on our toes. Closing the gaps. The same soccer things. He wants to give us a number 6 [defensive midfielder], sometimes two, to help out in front of the back four, so there's not so much space between the lines, so to speak, because the top teams now, they've always got someone good that can play in between the lines, and that's terrible for defenders to defend.”

Bocanegra has experience on the left as well as in the middle, but his transition fully into a center back is complete. Klinsmann said as much at the beginning of the week.

“I don't like to see a Bocanegra playing 50 percent [of the time at] left back,” the U.S. coach said in a roundtable Monday in Manhattan Beach. “I want Bocanegra to be a left [-sided] center back, because that's where he's 100 percent. As a left back, he might be only 90. But I'm losing 10 percent. Can I afford that on the international level? No.”

Bocanegra, hearing this, said Klinsmann's words “makes me feel good, because I feel like that's my strongest position. Obviously, if we get into a pinch or whatever, I can play left back. I don't feel like I make such an impact at left back for the team or on the game, and I don't feel I can lead as much from that position: You're not in the heart of the plays all the time, in the action.

“Center back is a big responsibility for me, and it's something I like.”

Howard, the Americans' standout goalkeeper, likes Bocanegra in the middle, too.

“I think every team I've ever played on, I've always had a security blanket, you know?” Howard said. “And he's that guy for me. Someone I can trust, I can lay it all on the line with, and yell at and speak to, and it's important that he's there.”

Bocanegra, who has made 94 international appearances and played in two World Cups, knows this is surely his last four-year World Cup cycle with the U.S. He'll be 35 in 2014 -- and thus 39 for Russia 2018 -- and rarely are field players capable of competing at the top level beyond 35 or so.

“I think it might be tough after this [cycle],” he said. “We'll see. You know, I want to play as long as I can. I'm going to take it year by year and, hopefully, the coach keeps calling me in, and I'll come in every camp.”

His club career is in good stead. The former MLS Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year with the Chicago Fire has been in Europe since 2004, first with Fulham in England, then with Stade Rennes and Saint-Etienne in France. He moved two weeks ago to Rangers FC, where he joins Americans Maurice Edu and, another newcomer, Alejandro Bedoya.

Rangers, with Fontana's Edu in central midfield, has won three successive Scottish titles (and a record 54 in all, dating to 1891); if the Scots' Premier League is not quite to the level of France's Ligue 1, few if any French clubs boast the status of the Glaswegian giant.

“I was having a great time in France,” Bocanegra said. “I loved my club and my situation, the coaching staff, players. Rangers came calling, and, you know, it's a massive club. The history, a chance to win titles, to play in Europa League, Champions League. And I've never been able to play in Champions League in my career.

“When they came calling, I was excited. I couldn't turn it down.”

Edu, also a national team regular, says he's enjoying having a couple of his countrymen on the team -- the first since DaMarcus Beasley departed a couple of years back.

“I'm the one kind of showing them around a little bit and helping them get accustomed and used to their new surroundings,” Edu said. “It always makes the transition easier to have familiar faces there to show you around and help ease you into the situation.”

Bocanegra debuted in a Europa League playoff-round loss to Slovenia's NK Maribor, scoring in his home premiere, a 1-1 draw that ended the Blues' European campaign for 2011-12.

“That was unfortunate,” he said. “We're better than that, which is disappointing for all of us: the club, supporters, the players most of all. That part was disappointing. But we win the league this year, we qualify directly for the group stages of the [2012-13] Champions League, so that's a nice goal to have.”

WORTH NOTING: Donovan will not travel to Brussels for Tuesday's Belgium game, so he will be available to the Galaxy on Monday at Sporting Kansas City. ... Cherundolo will join the U.S. in Belgium. ... Costa Rica on Thursday announced that Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto will take charge for the second time. Pinto was the Ticos' coach in 2004-05, during qualifying for the 2006 World Cup but was dismissed after poor results; Costa Rica ended up qualifying for the tournament. He also guided Alajuelense to Costa Rican first-division titles in 2003-04 and was Colombia's national team coach in 2007-08. Interim coach Ronald Gonzalez is guiding Costa Rica in Friday's game. ...

The U.S. rallied on Jonathan Bornstein's goal late in stoppage for a 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw in October 2009, the last meeting between the Yanks and Ticos. Bornstein's strike, completing a comeback from an early two-goal deficit, took CONCACAF's third automatic berth from Costa Rica and gave it to Honduras, where the Los Alamitos product became a national hero. The Ticos were beaten by Uruguay in a playoff for the tournament's final berth. ... The U.S. is 8-1-2 at Home Depot Center, its only loss to Honduras in January 2010.