GUADALAJARA, Mexico – A skillful, technical player who says he loves having the ball at his feet, 22-year-old, Las Vegas-born Atlas midfielder Ricardo Bocanegra oozes confidence on the pitch and takes the game to opponents. In other words, he’s exactly the type of player US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann says he’s been looking for.
“[Juan Román] Riquelme is one of my greatest idols; [Zinedine] Zidane and Sinha, too, with how they work the ball,” Bocanegra told MLSsoccer.com at Atlas’ training ground recently. “I try and do those types of things.”
Those already salivating at the thought of a player in the mold of Zidane or Riquelme in the shirt of the United States may be startled to learn that Bocanegra’s rapid rise over the last six months has seen him not only earn a call up to the Mexican U-23 national team, but also take away a spot in the starting XI from vaunted Chivas midfielder Jorge Enríquez.
Meanwhile, Bocanegra says there has been no contact whatsoever from US Soccer officials. But as those who know his citizenship will gleefully point out, any conversation the US brass might want to have with the midfielder had better be in Spanish.
“It’s what everyone tells me,” Bocanegra laughed. “‘You’re from there and you don’t speak any English.’”
Bocanegra was raised in La Paz, Baja California, after his parents relocated there when he was about one month old. At 12, he moved to Guadalajara to join Chivas’ youth system. When things didn’t work out with the Goats, he moved to crosstown rivals Atlas at age 17.
These days, Bocanegra is a regular in Atlas’ starting XI.
“It was a deception with Chivas,” he said. “I lost motivation, but for some reason it worked out well and thanks to Atlas I’m here now.”
Bocanegra made his first-team debut on August 7, 2010 – coming on at halftime against Necaxa – but has only consolidated himself as a regular starter over the last six months.
And he’s announced his arrival with authority. On Oct. 16, Bocanegra scored a spectacular curler from outside the penalty area to open the scoring against reigning champions Pumas UNAM on the road.
The goal paced Atlas to a 4-1 victory, and Mexico took notice. The very next week, Bocanegra was playing in the Pan American Games and was a key figure in winning the team a gold medal.
Rumblings in the local media suggested scouts from English side Arsenal returned across the Atlantic after the tournament with Bocanegra’s name high on their watch list.
The young Atlista’s career has not been without some controversy, though. In March this year, Bocanegra crashed his car in the early hours of a Sunday morning, leading to press speculation he had been driving under the influence of alcohol. Bocanegra spoke to local media and categorically denied the claim.
Atlas backed Bocanegra but warned him that if he committed any other misdemeanor, he would be thrown out of the club.
The young midfielder remains with the Zorros, and his play has only gotten better. With his star on the rise, there has been plenty of speculation about which national team Bocanegra will eventually choose.
But just at the moment, he’s not going to worry about that.
“Firstly, I want to do good things with Atlas,” Bocanegra said. “Being with the national team means you are doing well in the club. That’s what happened. I played well for the last six months. They gave me the opportunity to play and I took advantage of it.”
Bocanegra’s upbringing and current form with Mexico suggests that he’ll eventually choose El Tri over the US. But he also visits his mother – who has moved back to Las Vegas – when he gets time off.
During Mexico’s pre-Pan Am Games training camp, Bocanegra roomed with Club Tijuana forward and fellow Mexican-American Joe Benny Corona. The Atlas man stayed with Mexico; Corona opted to play with the US U-23s in preparation for the 2012 Olympics.
Changing federations is hardly out of the question. And right now, it hardly matters.
“Who knows the future,” Bocanegra said. “I want to live in the present. I’m consolidating myself [with Atlas] and I’m not thinking five years down the line. Whatever is best for me, I’ll consider. At the minute I’m working hard here with my club and I’m happy with the national team.”
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.