The final MLS moment for former Chicago Fire defender and U.S. National Team captain Carlos Bocanegra was a deflating 4-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2003 MLS Cup.
Bocanegra, a former MLS Rookie of the Year and two-time MLS Defender of the Year, then had the opportunity to play for Fulham immediately after that season. And in his absence (along with some other changeover), the Fire went from MLS Cup runner-up to missing the postseason in 2004.
"I still remember how I felt after that game -- it was just an empty feeling," Bocanegra said Thursday from the U.S. Soccer House in the South Loop. "You had all this work, and we had a great team, but we came away with nothing. Yet we were so close. I would like to come back to MLS eventually, and hopefully I can come back here to the Fire and make up for lost times."
Bocanegra and the U.S. squad are preparing for Saturday's friendly against Poland at Soldier Field. Meanwhile, his former Fire side is prepping for Friday's match against the Columbus Crew. And as the Fire get ready to celebrate their 13th anniversary, there is a bitter pill to swallow as they are inches away from failing to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time.
Bocanegra said that he occasionally kept in touch with his ex-teammates during that difficult 2004 season, which included an 8-13-9 record and a last-place stance in the Eastern Conference.
"I talked to the guys a little bit, and it happens every once in a while," Bocanegra said. "You go through some rough patches, teams catch up to you, the league gets better. It's just one of those things. Obviously the Fire is used to winning and being successful, so that was a little bit more of a difficult season."
As Fire fans have been reminded during this sub-par 2010 campaign, transition comes with the territory within this sport, whether it is Bocanegra making the obvious choice to play overseas, or former Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton signing with Portuguese club Benfica following that same 2003 season.
"I had an opportunity to go to Europe, and for me I couldn't pass that up," Bocanegra said. "That was the biggest reason. It wasn't anything about wanting to leave the Fire. It was just time to go."
And Bocanegra's inkling to return to MLS or the Fire probably is further down the road, as well. Bocanegra is having a successful stint with French Ligue 1 side St. Etienne.
"It's been a really nice wave for me," Bocanegra said. "The new club has a huge history and a lot of support there. We have 40,000 every weekend in our stadium filling up, lighting flares and chanting. It's a really cool atmosphere."
Fire set for Crew: The Fire (7-11-8) are looking to erase the memory of last weekend's 3-0 defeat to FC Dallas when they host the Columbus Crew (13-7-7) on Friday at Toyota Park. The two sides last met on April 25 in Ohio as the Fire lost, 2-1. Chicago's lone tally was a Frankie Hejduk own goal.
Andrew Dykstra was in the net for Chicago in that match, and he will return to the starting lineup to replace an injured Sean Johnson.
The Fire have posted a 1-6-2 record over their past nine matches. Columbus is in the midst of a four-game winless stretch with a 0-2-2 record. The Crew's last win was at D.C. United on Sept. 4.