We knew it was coming. We just didn’t think it was coming so soon, which is why almost every lineup projection you saw ahead of today’s U.S. Men’s National Team match featured Geoff Cameron and captain Carlos Bocanegra in central defense. A few brave souls had MLS Cup final MVP Omar Gonzalez breaking into the starting XI, but the consensus held a road game to open the final round of World Cup Qualifying wouldn’t be met with a roll of the dice. If the big LA Galaxy center half was to be blooded, it would be elsewhere.
But when lineups were released an hour before the match, a mild ripple went through the U.S. soccer-loving world. Bocanegra was out, Gonzalez was in, and in the first competitive match of his United States career, the 24-year-old would be expected to form a quick partnership with Cameron in one of the more adversarial environments in CONCACAF soccer.
And we saw the results. On a minute-to-minute basis, Gonzalez seemed solid, but severe lapses on both goals put his performance under the microscope. Next to him, Cameron had his most-difficult game since breaking Jurgen Klinsmann’s starting XI. Combined a the poor performance from Timmy Chandler, a below-standard outing from Fabian Johnson, and a big mistake from Tim Howard, you could contend the States were lucky Honduras didn’t score more.
Combined with the basic mistakes that led to the final goal, the defense’s performance will leave U.S. fans asking ‘Why?’ Why was a reliable and experienced Carlos Bocanegra sat on a day when his would have proved so valuable?
In fairness, 75 minutes into the match, few people were talking about Bocanegra’s absence, but the nature of defending means you are judged by your worst moments. Those are the places where goals happen, so after Geoff Cameron failed to clear the through ball that led to the final goal, it’s fair to ask: Would Carlos Bocanegra would have done better? When Tim Howard seemed to misread the play and possibly miscommunicate with Cameron, we can’t help but wonder if the same would have happened if Bocanegra had started. And when Omar Gonzalez pulled up and allowed Jerry Bengston to beat him to the ball that became the winning goal, fans started imagining what the more-experienced Bocanegra would have done.
In our minds, we can see Bocanegra preserving today’s result, but our minds are also filled with the memories of a player that may not have been at Klinsmann’s disposal. In third round qualifying, we saw a more inconsistent Bocanegra than the man that anchored Bob Bradley’s defenses, a diminution made evident as the captain was left chasing Carlos Ruiz early in the U.S.’s final third round qualifying against Guatemala. Since, Bocanegra’s been a part-time player for the worst team in Spain’s second division. Because we’re not at every Racing Santander or U.S. national team practice we don’t know, but there’s strong circumstantial evidence to suggest Bocanegra may no longer be the player defined by our imaginations.
We have to at least concede there’s a possibility Gonzalez was the better option, a concession that doesn’t mean we have to abandon the idea Klinsmann made a mistake. The unfortunate truth is Klinsmann has a monopoly of knowledge on this issue, one that means we can never truly know if the boss made the right decision. All was can do is entertain the possibilities and use our intuition to decide which hypothetical Bocanegra is most likely the man who sat on the bench in Honduras.
If Bocanegra is still close to the player we imagine, Klinsmann probably made a mistake. That player should have been in Klinsmann’s XI. However, if that version of Bocanegra has been nowhere to be seen in training, we may be asking for a player who no longer exists.