Bocanegra likely to return to lineup
No one has to tell Carlos Bocanegra what a victory over England would have meant last weekend. Having recently finished his second season as a member of Fulham's backline, the 26-year-old defender had a chance to play against the same faces he sees week-in and week-out in the English Premier League.
"It was a higher-profile friendly for us, and we definitely wanted to win," said Bocanegra. "Guys were pumped up. I wish we would have beat them, so I wouldn't have to hear about it when I get back to England. We had a good second half, though, so we can build on that. I just wish I had gotten a little more time out there."
Usually a sure-fire starter when healthy, Bocanegra came off the bench against England in the 73rd minute, replacing Eddie Pope as one of the side's two centerbacks. He wasn't nursing an injury, so it was the case of U.S. manager Bruce Arena giving Cory Gibbs and Eddie Pope a chance to play together in the middle of the defense, as well as to give an opportunity to Greg Vanney to play as a left back after not being in the mix during the last several qualifiers since last Fall.
It also probably had something to do with the fact that Bocanegra wasn't starting matches for Fulham recently, and only registered his first start in the last two months in the team's final match against Norwich. It was also the first minutes he had played since early April.
But now that Bocanegra has been in camp for the last two weeks, Arena is likely to include him in the lineup against Costa Rica at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Bocanegra's very likely to start in his fourth straight qualifier, as he's arguably been the side's most consistent presence in the defense throughout qualifying.
Whether he plays as the team's left back -- as he did in the matches against Trinidad & Tobago, Mexico and Guatemala - or as a center back alongside either Pope or Gibbs, the Alta Loma, Calif., native said that fatigue from the rigors of a season that extends for 10 months out of the year will not be an issue.
"Mentally, you're a little bit tired from the long season, but it is nice to come back to the States and be back around all American guys," said Bocanegra from his hotel room in Salt Lake City on Thursday shortly after the U.S. side made the 60-mile trip north from their training grounds in Provo, Utah. "It gets you through it. All of us knew that we had these two qualifiers coming up, so we had to stay mentally prepared for them. We didn't just end the season over there and blow everything off. Had it been the case where it was thrown upon us at the last minute, it would have been tough, but we've all know all along about these games so we're prepared."
It's actually that sort of mindset that Bocanegra said has been when of the greatest lessons he's learned from playing over in the EPL for the last one-and-a-half seasons.
"You have to stay mentally strong for 90 minutes over there," he said. "That's the main thing that has stayed with me. You get tired on the field, but you cannot get tired mentally. In MLS, you can take breaks and you'll be okay. Over there, if you take a break, you'll get punished for it. So that's an area I know I've become better at since going to Fulham."
When playing against the Ticos, Bocanegra won't be able to take any mental breaks because of the presence of 28-year-old Paulo Wanchope, who has the size (6-foot-3), speed and goal-scoring ability to practically put the Costa Rican side on his back to get a result. Having actually covered Wanchope during the 2003-2004 season when the Costa Rican striker played for Manchester City, Bocanegra is familiar with his game.
"They have a few good attackers up top, but obviously Wanchope is the guy we need to watch," he said. "He's a big, strong physical guy, who likes to get behind the defense. He's going to be their main threat, without a doubt."
Bocanegra said that the team watched film of the Costa Rican side and that they feel pretty comfortable going into the match because there are so many players that the veterans have either played against in the past such as captain Luis Marin and Gilberto Martinez, as well as those who have experience in MLS. One such player is Los Angeles Galaxy defender Michael Umaña, who played 90 minutes for the Ticos in the side's 1-0 loss to Norway in a friendly played on Tuesday in Oslo.
Even so, the U.S. knows that Costa Rica is desperate for points, as it has just four points after three matches (1-1-1). A tie, and the precious point it brings, would not only help the Ticos in the CONCACAF standings, but it would also help establish momentum going forward, which is needed after a less-than-stellar start.
For the U.S., which is in second place in the group with three points (2-1 record), Bocanegra said that anything less than a victory would be disappointing, as the side is trying to keep pace with Mexico at the top of the standings.
"If we can get these three points, then we can hopefully start making a gap between ourselves and the rest of the pack," he said. "If Costa Rica gets a point against us, it would bring them closer and would keep everything a little too tight. We feel that we can get three points out of this game at home. We want to run away with this group as quick as possible to take the pressure off of us at the end."
As well as going into the Panama match down in Panama City on Wednesday.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com.