Carlos Bocanegra, One-on-One: On France, USMNT failure and the phenomenon in Atlanta
Atlanta United general manager Carlos Bocanegra labored long and hard to build a winner right out of the gate, and the squad he and his team put together electrified Major League Soccer in 2017. Using a lightning quick-attack to score 72 goals, United became just the second expansion team since 1998 to reach the playoffs, turning Atlanta into a hotbed for the sport.
The team's early success appears to position Bocanegra, 38, as a savvy team-builder following a 15-year playing career that will likely see him enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2018.
Bocanegra is among the finest defenders the United States has produced, dominating MLS before heading to Europe. He served as captain with Fulham, Saint-Etienne and Rangers, where he picked up the nickname “Captain America.”
Bocanegra also captained the U.S. men’s national team, making 110 appearances over a dozen years and playing in two World Cups.
FourFourTwo caught up with Bocanegra to talk about what's going on in Atlanta — and what's to come — his experiences on the field, and his thoughts on the U.S.' failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
FFT: There was such preseason buzz about Atlanta United, and then more once we saw the team in action. Did the expectations feel different than one might expect for an expansion club?
CARLOS BOCANEGRA: I think it felt good, that people were talking about us, that's for sure. And we were being spoken of highly. Anytime you go create something — and we were trying to put our best foot forward — it's nice that people think highly of it.
On the flip side, we saw very quickly that [we had been] kind of painted as the new darlings of the league, and everybody wanted to come kick our butts when they played us. But that's kind of cool. It's like the Yankees, or the Celtics or Lakers. Everybody wants to beat you every time we play. That's a good thing. And we were able to compete from the first year, which was excellent.
FFT: How do you balance the disappointment of the playoff loss, at home against Columbus in the play-in round, with the satisfaction of a very good season?
CB: It hurts. It was just a tough way to go out. You know, you play that midweek, Wednesday game, and it's kind of like, man, it didn't really feel like a playoff run, you know? That stuff hurts ...
We're proud of the season. Obviously, we were expecting to go further and we felt like we had a team equipped to make a deep run in the playoffs, so when it ended abruptly like that, that was a hard pill to swallow. But we've got to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move on. ... We were able to make the playoffs in our first year, so we're pleased with that, but we want more.
FFT: We've not seen a first-year team build a roster like Atlanta United did, certainly not since the Chicago Fire in 1998. What was the key to getting it right?
Soccer in ATL
CB: One of the big things was Darren [Eales, the club president] brought me on board, and we had some plans, we had some visions, and we were able to bring Paul [McDonough, the soccer-operations chief] in the mix. What we really tried to do was we worked as a group to go out and not divide and conquer, but look, let's all make sure we're splitting it up, we come back and have conversations, whether that's watching players, talking to coaches, talking to agents, all the different things that go into it.
For me, one of the big things was: Can these guys play in MLS? Are they going to be able to withstand the rigor of the travel, the heat? You play on different surfaces, you play at altitude, you play in different weather. What kind of league do we have? Are these guys able to compete in this type of league? All of these things factor in when we’re bringing in players, and then what kind of team do we want to be?
We want to be fast, fluid, attack-minded, so we go out and the players we start to acquire, like Tito [Hector Villalba], which was our first Designated Player signing. Six months before our season started, we acquire a guy like that, and then we say, OK, we need a coach that's going to play the style we want. So we're able to go out and get Tata [Gerardo Martino] and then play that attacking style with some flair.
Everybody in the business knows it's not just, ‘Oh, all right, it worked out.’ It's methodical. We had a vision, we had an idea of the direction we wanted to go, and you get some hits and you get some misses. Overall, we're very pleased with how it turned out.
FFT: What was your adjustment from player to executive like? Where did you find mentors?
CB: I've tried to just keep my ears open, so to speak, for the first few years [since retiring], and I'm still learning. I still want to grow and get better, and I've got a great team here. Darren has experience from the U.K. and bringing that over here, and Paul has great experience with being a former agent and also in the league with Orlando.
For me, it's great, being able to bounce ideas off these guys, and I'll learn some stuff from them, I'll learn by speaking to other GMs, and also just going through it. You go through trades, you go through acquiring players, signing contracts, negotiations with agents, all these things.
My mindset with that has always been I've got to have a growth mindset, where I'm continuing to grow. The moment I think I've made it or I know how to do anything or you can't ask questions, I think that's when it goes the wrong way.