What do you do to make money?” The defender is among the generation of American players who have altered the stature of the game in a country still obsessed by its own sports.
Bocanegra was back in the city last October, and was approached in a branch of the clothes store Guess by an employee who recognised him, something that had never happened before.
Then at a sports awards ceremony, it was Bocanegra and his international team-mates who were the centre of attention, even being approached by Chris Johnson, one of the country’s most high-profile American football stars, to ask for a picture. “That’s the last guy I would think knows who the hell we are,” Bocanegra said.
The change in status has come from the national team’s performances, particularly at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, but also the enduring careers in European football of individuals like Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, Oguchi Onyewu, Stuart Holden, DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu.
American players found acceptance by performing in some of the leading competitions, but also the means to be more assertive. They no longer feel unaccepted, and that has been recognised in America.
There have been awkward moments for Bocanegra, such as standing in front of Lawrie Sanchez while the Fulham manager instructed him to defend like John Scales, Terry Phelan, Eric Young and Andy Thom -- once the back four at Wimbledon.
Bocanegra had to admit to Sanchez that he had no idea who the manager was talking about. Yet he spent four years at Craven Cottage, and even captained the side, before Roy Hodgson became manager and sought greater pace from his defenders.
Bocanegra has spent the last three years in France, earning a reputation for being solid and uncompromising, and a move to the Clydesdale Bank Premier League with Rangers would not unsettle the 32-year-old.
He is a tall and strong defender, left-sided and able to be a dominant figure, but also mobile enough to have often played at left-back. Yet he is not quick, and can labour when faced by smart, swift attackers.
“Bocanegra is the long-time US captain, not so much because he is a fiery personality but because he is respected in the dressing room and has a long history with the national team,” says Grant Wahl, a senior writer with Sports Illustrated. “He isn’t particularly fast but he reads the game well and isn’t afraid to mix it up. Bocanegra is also dangerous in the air on set-pieces. He doesn’t have the most colourful personality but he’s a pleasant guy and he’s also very popular with women for his rugged looks. One question here is how long he’ll continue playing for the national team, but it appears he’d like to hang on as long as possible.”
If he is approaching the final years of his career, any decline is being managed. Bocanegra was admired at Rennes, then credited for being the bullish fugle who restored the soundness of Saint-Etienne’s defence last season.
He prefers to play centre-back, and would be increasingly exposed by a fast and agile winger, but has picked up enough sly techniques to quell more physical opponents.
“The [Saint-Etienne] defence was much improved and they even went top of the league briefly before fading,” says Matthew Spiro, a football writer based in France. “Bocanegra is very reliable and a really tough competitor. His distribution is poor and he lacks pace. But makes up that with good positioning, concentration, know-how and clever little fouls.”
Rangers would have preferred the accomplishment of Carlos Cuellar, or a defender such as Roland Juhasz who, at 28, is in his prime, but those deals fell through. If Bocanegra is next on the list of potential centre-back signings, then the club can at least assume that a player with 93 international caps will not be fazed by the demands of the Scottish game. As well as his brawn, he is an authoritative and commanding presence.
“He assertively marshals the defence, reads the game well and has terrific anticipation,” says Jere Longman, a New York Times sports writer. “He possesses some bite in his tackling, which might come from the fact that he played American football in high school as a defensive back and wide receiver in California. Some have said that he could have played major college football if he had chosen that sport over soccer.”
To Rangers, Bocanegra would surely represent a short-term fix at centre-back, but one who is fiercely competitive and who would relish the intensity of the Old Firm environment.