Among many hot button topics as the US national team prepares to meet on Costa Rica (Friday, 10 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas) in World Cup qualifying is, “With Carlos Bocanegra not on the roster and Tim Howard injured, who will be the captain?” Or as soccer fans like to say, “Who’ll get the band?”
I’m here to say, it doesn’t really matter.
That’s not a former player or coach speaking, just a guy who has covered sports for a quarter of a century. Until someone on the US wears the captain’s armband for a long stretch of time, it’s irrelevant who fills that role on Friday night in Denver.
Why? Because in a one-game situation, so the captain’s role is little more than ceremonial. You go with a player who’s experienced, and you want a player who’s not going to go crazy on the referee, or allow any of his teammates to go crazy on the referee.
A captain like Bocanegra earned the role, and his voice in the dressing room, over time. It was likely something he began to earn before he even was officially named the captain. Once he established himself in that position, his captaincy became something closer to the role a captain on a club team fulfills, as a day-to-day conduit between players and staff.
Let me give you an example.
I remember back a decade or so, paying a visit to the Chicago Fire’s training facility at Lake Forest College and seeing Peter Nowak (right) going through the team’s laundry basket. It was a curious sight to see the team’s captain pulling sweaty socks out of a basket, pulling some right-side out, and checking each piece of laundry to see who it belonged to.
What Nowak was doing was checking to see which Chicago Fire players were not following the team rule that – out of respect to the equipment manager – you do not put your socks inside-out into the basket. You take the extra seconds to help him out. Nowak told me that when he saw the equipment an one day turning socks around, he took action. When Nowak found socks turned in the wrong way, he imposed fines.
So, I tracked Nowak down yesterday to ask him if he agreed with me, that it was not important who wore the band on Friday night for the US Nowak was also captain for Poland, so he also knew what it was like to fill the role for his country.
“Not important?” Nowak asked. “I think it’s crucial.
"It’s crucial," he continued, "because, in light of Carlos not being called in, someone must be ready to communicate with the coach on behalf of the team. It has to be a guy who’s established and respected within the team, and a guy who can bring the players together over the next five or six days.
"There are always going to be different groups within a team, but there will come a time this week where they must be together. Only one guy can be the captain on the field, but it shouldn’t be a one-man show off the field. The captain has to be a guy who can walk into a few hotel rooms and take the temperature.”