Carlos Bocanegra is the answer to a couple of trivia questions.
The first is "Who's the first player to win MLS Defender of the Year twice?" Boca did it in 2002 and 2003 for the Chicago Fire. He was great, and that team was great - and we'll get back to that in a minute.
The second one is not so much a trivia question as it is the lament of many, many American (and Canadian) soccer fans: "Imagine if our best athletes chose soccer instead of football/basketball/hockey."
Bocanegra was one of those athletes. When he was 17 years old he chose to keep playing soccer instead of American football. But even though he left American football behind, the sport stayed with him.
Here's what Bocanegra said to ESPN Magazine back in 2012: "Now I think playing football helped me because I bring some of that aggressiveness to the soccer field. I enjoy smashing into someone and embrace physical contact."
That he did. Bocanegra attacked the ball in the air like few players I have seen, right up there with Tim Cahill and Fabio Cannavaro in terms of guys who were less than 6 feet tall. He was an aerial force, especially in scoring situations - something reflected in his goal total for the USMNT.
His 14 goals in 110 games are the most by a US defender, and were mostly off of set pieces. Here's a compilation US Soccer threw together a few years back:
So in a lot of ways he was perfect for the English Premier League, but he wasn't just a bruiser. He was smart and flexible and understood the angles of the game at a high level - of his 133 apperances for Fulham, most were at central defense; another bunch were at left back; and then a solid 20 came at d-mid for a team that only rarely flirted with the drop.
Those 133 showings for Fulham are more than he had for any other club, but I'll remember him best from those early-2000s Chicago teams (I told you we'd circle back around).
It was a great era for Chicago, and they won three major trophies: the Supporters' Shield/US Open Cup double in 2003, and the US Open Cup in 2000.
The frustrating thing for Fire fans is that those teams are just as noteworthy for the trophies they almost won. Chicago missed out on the Shield based on goal differential in two straight years ('00 and '01), and lost MLS Cup in 2000 to an heroic performance in goal from KC's Tony Meola. They were two regular-season goals and two MLS Cup goals away from being the only team in league history to do a treble.
Then in 2003, after doing their double, they came even closer to that elusive third trophy. This time they fell short to a dominant performance from Landon Donovan and the Earthquakes in a 4-2 MLS Cup loss.
The Fire with Bocanegra on the backline were nearly the MLS team everybody remembers. Instead they're the great team from MLS history that almost nobdy remembers.
And that is probably unfair to Boca, but he's used to it at this point, right? After all, nobody remembers that it was he - and not Donovan - who was captain of the 2009 and 2010 US national teams, the ones that finished runners-up in the Confederations Cup and then won their group at the following World Cup.
Here's the rest of that quote from the ESPN interview, and it's revelatory:
"But I think team sports are all pretty similar. You have to adapt and fit into the team while trying to shine within the team. It was awesome to learn teamwork at such a young age, to work together and fight for the same goal."
The goal, always, is a championship. But even when he and his teams came up short, I'll remember Carlos Bocanegra for the fight as much as the result.