Yesterday was a significant day in Chivas USA's history. Just how significant, time will tell. But a player with the resume that Carlos Bocanegra has is not the kind of player who signs with a team every day, and certainly not with Chivas USA. With the deal official, and Bocanegra making his first remarks on joining the club yesterday, let's go over the changes that will, or could be coming to the Goats:
On the field:
On the field, the hope is that Bocanegra will be an immediate upgrade in defense. Although Chivas arguably have a bigger problem with full backs at the moment than with center backs, with the team worst in the league in goals conceded, it is clear that upgrades along the backline are essential.
My hope, and I think a reasonable expectation, is that coach Jose Luis Real will slot Bocanegra in at center back, and move Walter Vilchez over to left back. Chivas don't actually have any true left backs on the active roster, and Vilchez has played the position in the past. While he won't bomb up and down the flank, his passing is terrific, and he can pick his spots and mostly get the ball to Jorge Villafana to progress the attack on the left.
Though Mario de Luna has had ups and downs this season, I don't see him leaving the starting lineup, so I believe he'll be paired with Bocanegra, and with Vilchez on the left, the defense should be substantially better than it has been at any point this season.
Bocanegra should also provide leadership for a team that appears to need more of it. With the squad so deficient in MLS experience and for the most part pretty young, Bocanegra's stature should provide an immediate boost to the team. There's a reason he was the U.S. Men's National Team captain for so many years, and his skill, coupled with his qualities as a leader on and off the field, should give the Goats a much-needed shot in the arm.
Off the field:
Obviously, Chivas signed Bocanegra first and foremost as a player. But there are multiple reasons why this move has to alter recent trends and perceptions of the club.
Over the past several months, the trend that Chivas USA has become the farm team of Chivas de Guadalajara has appeared to expand and become a full mission. Bringing underachieving players to California, seeing if they could come good, then recalling them (as they have already done with youngster Giovani Casillas), that's along the lines of what we saw in the first season or so of this club. But the recent developments, of Chelís talking about the likelihood of Carlos Alvarez going to Guadalajara, as well as Eric Avila's actual trial at Guadalajara, indicated that Chivas' main purpose looked to be providing a source of talent for Chivas de Guadalajara, with the results at Chivas USA being largely irrelevant.
Now, although Dan Kennedy and a few other non-Latinos remain on the squad, the team is almost exclusively Latino, of multiple nationalities. Bocanegra is of course Latino himself, but what sets apart this signing is the fact that not only did he represent the United States internationally, his nickname is literally "Captain America." It is unclear if the front office decided they needed to steer back to an American identity to get the club back on course, or if this is somehow coincidental, but for a team that has been publicly aggressive, albeit often conflicting, in discussing how the club is going in a "Mexican" direction, to sign a star of American soccer indicates a possible tweak in the philosophy. I doubt the club would ever acknowledge that publicly, but it has to at least be considered, especially in tandem with how the squad was built to start the season, and how it is essentially being rebuilt at midseason.
Another factor, that has been pointed out repeatedly already, is that the signing could be an indication that Chivas USA needs to actually target U.S. soccer fans, and by signing Bocanegra, it's a signal of intent that it's not just fans who like Mexico and Chivas de Guadalajara/Chivas USA who can be the club's core audience. I think if you talk to existing fans, you know that's true, but with the support dwindling, the team has needed to make efforts, any kind of efforts, to actually woo fans, and Bocanegra's signing appears to be a good first step on that front.
The second issue connected to how the team is perceived after signing Bocanegra is of course what his contract is. We won't find out the answer until the fall, but there has been speculation about his salary upon returning to MLS. I figured he would be signed as a Designated Player, considering his resume and relative bargaining power. But I've since heard that his salary will most likely be far lower than that, perhaps in the $150,000-$200,000 range. Again, we won't know until we see the updated salary information released later this year. But although MLS technically pays player salaries that are below DP levels, we know Chivas' status as the team with by far the lowest payroll in the league. Everything, short of perhaps keeping and re-signing Kennedy to a contract extension, has indicated that Jorge Vergara does not want to invest in this team. Does Bocanegra's signing change that? Possibly. I don't think a single move can overcome a dozen moves that go in the opposite direction. But regardless of how motivated Vergara is to really try to make Chivas USA competitive, signing Bocanegra is clearly a step in the right direction. It's just one step, granted, but it shows at least a sign of life for this club.
There are factors on both sides that could make a deal that looks great on paper turn out horribly wrong. Let's consider some of them:
- Bocanegra can't stay healthy, and doesn't play much at all
- Bocanegra does something reminiscent of Shalrie Joseph at Chivas last year, mails it in and actually negatively impacts team performance
- Chivas USA don't follow up his signing with additional significant moves to reinforce the squad, so his ultimate impact is muted
- The team is badly-run, causing discontent between player and club, and allowing chaos to persist on the team
- There is a salary dispute (hey, this happened with Oswaldo Minda, so as unlikely as it should be, it seems possible)
- Chivas USA could trade him, likely in the offseason, and likely for a terrible return (if prior examples are used as guidance)