Carlos Bocanegra kicks off uniform

Defender, U.S. men's national soccer team (captain)/Rangers (Scottish Premier League)

Updated: July 11, 2012, 9:43 AM ET
By Morty Ain | Photographs: Richard Phibbs

This is an extended interview from the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue. Subscribe to the Mag today!

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?
CB: I liked the concept. The human body is pretty awesome, and we work hard to keep our bodies looking good. Soccer used to get a bad rap as a sissy sport, so it's nice to show that we are strong athletes and are in good shape.

Talk about your sports upbringing.
CB: In high school, I played football -- defensive back, wide receiver, kicker and punt returner -- and ran track. Soccer just won out. My friends all played. I really enjoyed it. I was pretty good. And then I was offered a scholarship to UCLA. I thought, Can't turn down free schooling at a place like this, so I decided to take the scholarship and go with it. Now I think playing football helped me because I bring some of that aggressiveness to the soccer field. I enjoy smashing into someone and embrace physical contact. But I think team sports are all pretty similar. You have to adapt and fit into the team while trying to shine within the team. It was awesome to learn teamwork at such a young ageto work together and fight for the same goal.

How did your brother influence you?
CB: My brother is four years older than me, and he played on a good soccer team. [Diego Bocanegra played at Grand Canyon College and attended UCLA in 1995-96.] All the younger brothers of those guys would play on the side because we wanted to be like them. We'd try to copy them on the sideline and do what they did. My brother was the California Interscholastic Federation's Offensive Player of the Year and All-CIF twice, so I made that my goal. He was a good role model. I just wanted to be like him.

The 2006 World Cup was the most fit I've ever felt. We had a month and a half training camp before, and it was really hard. But my body felt really good, like I could play forever.

How do soccer players compare to other athletes?
CB: I think Americans in general are pretty athletic, and that helps our sport. But I can't imagine if Barry Sanders or Allen Iverson or some of those guys played soccer from a young age what kind of soccer players they might have become. But soccer is becoming another sport kids play. You can see that MLS is getting better, our national team is getting better, we are producing more guys who play in big leagues overseas. You can see the progression and how much better American soccer is compared to 20 years ago. It's really good to see.

Describe your toughest day of training.
CB: We'll start with a 15- to 20-minute warmup then get into ladder work -- quickness, speed, agility, running through cones. Then we'll do hurdles, plyometrics, balance and a lot of footwork. It progressively gets faster until you get into a sprint and possession game. From there, we move to a directional game, constantly moving and cutting and turning and sprinting. We could be doing 40- to 60-yard runs, and when you do that for 90 minutes, it's tough. But that's soccer, constantly on the move. In a game, we run five to eight miles, so you have to build up that endurance.

What exercise can't you live without?
CB: I like dynamic exercises and plyometrics and things like that. But some guys don't like that. They just like to go out on the field and play and be done. We do a lot of specific things that are relevant for our game and movements. Soccer is a lot about balance. We change direction a lot, so as much as you need to be strong and able to run, you also need good balance. If there's a ball at your foot, you need to be able to pull it back and go the other way. Our abductors and groins are vulnerable to injury because we cut and turn and kick and twist so much, so we do a lot of exercises to strengthen those muscles.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any more?
CB: Just keep pushing. We get pushed to the limits, but it's only going to benefit us later. It's like putting it in the bank. You put in hard work during the week, and all that sweat pays off during the game when you need to do that last run or that last tackle. You've worked so hard that games won't even be that hard. You'll be ready to go.

What do you like about your body?
CB: I enjoy being fit. I think soccer players are naturally pretty slender. We run a lot, so we don't keep a lot of body fat. We tend to have pretty good abs, and I think legs are usually our best body part. We tend to hear that from the opposite sex that they enjoy our legs. We also tend to eat quite a bit because we work so hard, and that's always fun. You can go to a restaurant and order what you want because you know you are going to burn it off. It's not like I'm eating ice cream all the time, but if you'd like to have some steak and potatoes, you can go for it.

I watched the NBA playoffs, and there were some hilarious flops. In soccer, it's an unwritten rule that if someone is flopping, someone on the field is going to get him at some point in the game.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?
CB: It's not so bad for guys. It's much tougher for women. But when I was in high school, some guys had matured already and I hadn't. We'd be in the weight room, and some of the guys were benching 200 pounds or whatever, and I still had a little boy's body and was thinking, Man, I wish I would just hit puberty already and grow up. But it came eventually.

What is the most physical part of soccer?
CB: Corner kicks are getting to be really physical. The other team might throw blocks or picks, or a guy will run you into someone or try to run off your shoulder to get a few steps ahead. Some teams play man-to-man and try to mark you. Meanwhile, you're working with your teammates and constantly thinking on your toes. It's turned into something of a scrum.

How do you react when you see someone "dive"?
CB: I watched the NBA playoffs, and there were some hilarious flops. In soccer, it's frustrating when people flop, but it's also something that is part of the game, so you get on with it. Baseball has the unspoken rule that when your batter gets hit, the next inning someone else gets hit. In this game, it's an unwritten rule that if someone is flopping, someone on the field is going to get him at some point in the game. If you're lucky, it's you, but you need to do it in a smart way, around midfield. You can't do it anywhere close to your box where you might give them an opportunity for a set piece or a free kick. And it's nothing dirty; we aren't trying to break legs or throw elbows. There's no place for that.

What's it like going into hostile countries for matches?
CB: When we went to Guatemala in June, we landed on the military side of the airport, and riot police came to our bus, and we were flanked by SWAT buses to the hotel. The first time, you think, What the heck is going on here? Two guys have just gotten on our bus in riot gear with machine guns, and they don't speak our language. But that's part of being on the U.S. team and traveling overseas. We pulled up to the stadium with military escort, and they had riot police keeping the crowd back. When you walk in, the stadium is full, and they boo and whistle at you. But it's fun. It pumps you up. It makes you really want to get after it. It gets you in battle mode. You feel that energy, you feed off it, and it makes for an awesome environment. There's nothing better than scoring a goal and hearing thousands of people silent after they've been screaming at you the entire game.

What was your best athletic moment -- a time when you felt completely in tune with your body?
CB: The 2006 World Cup was the most fit I've ever felt. We had a month and a half training camp before, and it was really hard, but because of the work we put in leading up to the World Cup, my body felt really good, like I could play forever.

What do you want people to know about you?
CB: I really enjoy the sport. I really enjoy being part of the team. I love competing. Even in training, every day it's highly competitive. I feel fortunate to play at the highest level in our country and a professional sport for a living, to run around and work out for a living. It's awesome to wake up and do that every day.

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