By Anthony Caruso III | Publisher
Former United States Men’s National Team and two-time World Cup player Carlos Bocanegra, along with the then-staff of MLS Atlanta, now Atlanta United FC, had several years to build the MLS team for their 2017 debut season. However, his older brother, Diego, had just several months to prepare for his new venture.
“I know I’m taking over a program that has 12 wins in the past four-years,” he said. “The six wins last season were actually a lot of wins for them compared to what they were. That being said, just like [Cal State] Fullerton, I was in a good position at Notre Dame, where I could be picky, as I loved my time at Notre Dame. I could have seen myself being there even longer, but Houston has the perfect storm for me.
“President Renu Khator, she has laid the foundation that the University of Houston will be a premiere academic and athletic institution, not just in the region, but in the nation. She has been able to fundraise and bring so much momentum to the University and Athletic Department. She brought in Hunter Yurachek to run our Athletic Department (in 2015) and they have created a buzz, as there’s over $85 million in athletic facilities, and even more in construction, as we speak. In the next two-years, that will increase to over $200 million in athletic facilities being updated or constructed. There is a strong push to be able to compete on the national level. They are looking to put coaches in place, who have coached at the top level. As soon as I could get to Houston, I could feel the energy and everyone I met was just amazing and motivated. As soon as I left the interview, I knew I wanted to be at Houston. I’m so excited I’m getting the chance to be here.”
Bocanegra brings 17-years of coaching experience to his new position. He began his journey as a men’s assistant soccer coach with Pomona-Pitzer and UC Riverside. He then was hired as a men’s and women’s soccer assistant coach for two seasons at Cal State San Bernardino.
Bocanegra was then promoted to head coach of the Division II program, where he guided the team to 18 wins in two seasons. The team went 10-5-5 and nearly made it to the NCAA Championship game in 2008.
Prior to his arrival as head coach, the team had 14 wins in three seasons.
“When I got there, it was good timing, along with a lot of hard work,” he said. “I took over a program that was 1-16-3 the year before. I was an assistant coach there for a few years coaching the women’s team and that’s when we starting recruiting my type of players. At the time, I was also the Director of Coaching for Arsenal on the girl’s side, so I was able to bring in new players in the course of two years. 14 of those 21 players, I had coached previously at the club or high school level. And it was just a matter of bringing in the right players — and players, who understand me and the system that I wanted to be there. The transition then became a lot easier for them, because I had coached many of them for two-to-three-years prior. I think that really helped with the transition to go from one win to eight wins in the first-year to 10 wins our second-year.
“I think I’m bias and I think the statistics will show that soccer in Southern California — if California were its own country — I think we’d be able to compete on the world’s stage, both in men’s and women’s soccer. Just the soccer culture in Southern California is a melting pot than different parts of the world. It’s just a great soccer culture, where with all these immigrants, soccer is the No. 1 sport. The fact that you get to play year-round and the fact that there’s so many people, the competition is unbelievable. I know I’m bias, but there’s different types of styles you get to learn to play against, along with different type of players. You’re playing against the best every single day. If you look at my neck of the woods, the Inland Empire, my brother, Landon Donovan, Mo Edu, then on the women’s side, Alex Morgan, Shannon Boxx. These are top-level players but these Inland Empire players fill college rosters around the country. It’s a special soccer culture.”
His final stop in California was with Cal State Fullerton. The team was the Big West Conference Champion in 2012 when he was there. They also were the 2013 Big West Tournament Champion.
Bocanegra also coached Erica Mazeau, who was the 2013 Big West Midfielder of the Year. He was also the 2012 NSCAA Far West Regional Assistant Coach of the Year.
“I was very, very happy at Cal State Fullerton,” he said. “I got to coach with one of my best friends, Demian Brown. How I got there was he asked me to go to dinner one night and said that I was very successful at San Bernardino — and any good Division I program has to have two head coaches and I want you to come coach with me. We built that program up, where it could be successful and I was very, very selective — I had looked into Pac-12 Conference assistant coaching jobs the year before — and the timing wasn’t right, along with it wasn’t right with my family, at the time.”
He spent the past three seasons with the Fighting Irish. There, he helped coach 10 All-ACC selections and two National Women Soccer League (NWSL) draft picks.
The team also made two NCAA Tournament appearances.
“When Notre Dame called, you’re talking about one of the best academic and athletic schools in the country,” he said. “I’m bias, because I would say there’s only four schools that’s on par with them. When they give you a call, you look into it. I knew I wanted to be a head coach again at the Division 1 level. In the back of my head, I knew that would be the best way for me to do that. More importantly, I knew I was going to be able to learn as a head coach from that experience. I would be able to coach in the ACC and get out of my comfort zone to take on a big challenge, in trying to win an ACC Championship and a National Championship. We got to recruit some of the best players in the nation and play against the best in Stanford, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Duke on an annual basis. It was a no brainer for me, as I’m driven and want to be the best. It was a great way to challenge myself.”
The move to Houston has gotten Bocanegra closer to his family’s roots.
“Family was a big part of taking this job,” he said. “My wife and I both came from Southern California and the climate, the city — it’s so similar to LA (Los Angeles) — that we have unlimited options when it comes to restaurants, concerts, etc. In Los Angeles, we have two Major League Soccer teams, we have two professional baseball teams, two professional hockey teams, if you count the Kings and the Ducks. We’re used to this, so with Houston being the fourth-largest city in the country, with Los Angeles being the second-largest, it felt like home. Also, with Mexico being close by, it wasn’t necessarily that family was closer, but it felt more like home. The demographics of South Bend, Indiana (location of Notre Dame) compared to Houston, it’s definitely different. From what I’ve been told, Houston is the most diverse city in the country.
“That’s how we grew up. My wife and I grew up not seeing color, and some of my best friends are black, Asian, Middle Eastern — it doesn’t matter to me, because we’re friends, and that’s all that matters to me. That’s how we grew up in Los Angeles and Houston is the same way. Houston felt more like home and does it help that we’re a shorter flight away from Mexico? Absolutely. My mom’s side of the family is in Chihuahua, Mexico, which is two hours south of El Paso [Texas]. It’s more of that, the culture and the feel than being immediately closer to family.”
The Cougars are 3-2-1 this season. They did have three games cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey with the Rice game eventually being made up. The Mississippi State Bulldogs and LSU Tigers games may not be made up after being cancelled.
“I think the most important thing for us is hiring the right staff,” Bocanegra said. “We wouldn’t be as far ahead of schedule without hiring Blair Quinn and Danesha Adams. I’m also glad we were also able to retain Cami Koski. They are experienced, hungry, personable coaches, who can recruit and saw the vision and helped us put that into effect. Once I got that staff in place, we are raising the standards and changing the culture. We do not talk about the results. We talk about getting better every day and the process.
“We have to do all the little things to see the big picture. I think the biggest thing for the players have been all the little things to being on time, getting dressed together, eating meals together and properly using our nutrition staff to eat properly. I also want them to sleep enough hours, along with the details in the classroom. I want them to all have accountability — making everyone accountable and putting together leadership groups, all without thinking about the results. The results then will take care of themselves. The biggest changes are we lifted and ran more than they have ever had in any off-season. We held them accountable with the details in all aspects of their lives more than they ever have in their lives. We basically pushed them out of their comfort zone and forced them to grow. On the other side of that, we sold our vision by bringing in 10 players this year and we already have nine players committed for 2018. In five months, we committed 17 players for the next three-years.”
Bocanegra insists that he has to have time frames on his goals, or they’re just dreams. Either way, he plans to stick around for the long haul.
“Absolutely, I expect this team to get into the Conference Tournament this year,” he said. “Whether, we make it or not, I believe we can. I think we’re good enough and we changed the culture enough already. I expect in the next 2-4 years that we’re competing to win the Conference Championship game and that during that same span, I believe we can get in the NCAA Tournament. The next step behind that, I’m not looking past that right now. I’m not looking to come to Houston to build up a program then leave. I truly believe I’m at a University, where I can build up the program so that I can stay. As a Department, we feel that all sports can compete on the national level. Does that mean that I’m going to be here forever? I can’t predict the future, but there are only four jobs that I would leave here for, but I don’t see those jobs becoming available in the next five years. I’m planning on planting my flag here. My wife and I have been together for 10-years and we’ve had nine houses. My life and my kids like the area we’re in now. I don’t plan on leaving.
“I didn’t come here to do what Tom Herman [former Houston head football denied he was leaving for Texas then became the Longhorns head coach shortly thereafter] did. I’m not going to use Houston as a stepping stone. In a perfect world, I’d love to build the program up at Houston, so that we get so much backing that we have our own stadium. By the time I retire, hopefully here at Houston, I feel so comfortable here that there’s enough challenges here that I’m going to be here for the long haul. I’m not looking to get in and get out.”
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