Carlos Bocanegra was forever tired. Hungry too. And his workouts had frustratingly little effect. Three years into his professional career, he'd done well enough since being drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Fire in 2000, being named Rookie of the Year. But much of the 22-year-old central defender's potential remained untapped.
So unexpectedly, he went to see a nutritionist. Making MLS's puny entry-level salary, he was living off grocery store hot dogs with a can of chili poured over them. The nutritionist taught him how to substitute in cheap but healthy alternatives and stay hydrated.
"I saw results," Bocanegra says now. "I had more energy. I was sleeping better at night. My performances were getting better on the field. I felt stronger and dropped some body fat and gained some muscle."
Within months, Bocanegra won the first of his back-to-back MLS Defender of the Year titles and started earning regular call-ups to the US national team. "It was a real eye-opener," he says. "You take on a lifestyle."
Bocanegra can talk endlessly about conditioning, discussing it with the learned fluency of a sports scientist on the cutting edge. "I like it because I'm an athlete and my body is my tool," he says. "If something hurts on me I want to know: why does that hurt? What's the connecting chain [of events] with that?"
In spite of being listed at just 180 pounds, the 6-foot-tall Bocanegra is noticeably muscular for a soccer player, who typically trade on their litheness. It allows him to push around opposing forwards and compensate for a lack of speed and a pedestrian skill-set on the ball. And it got him into this year's ESPN The Magazine Body Issue too. His physicality is the residue of years spent playing American football at Alta Loma High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
"I really enjoyed being able to smash somebody," he says. "I played offense and defense and it was just as fun on offense if you could run over a cornerback as it was to have a tight end come at you and get to smash him in the face. I loved the contact. I guess it's because my older brother used to dominate me in the backyard when we were younger and my dad always used to just say: 'Get up, quit crying'."
"I loved football," he says. "I ended up being pretty good at it." So good that his team won a pair of California state championships and Bocanegra was recruited to play wide receiver by San Jose State and San Diego State. But when UCLA came calling with a soccer scholarship, he saw better professional prospects. "I weighed up my options and guys I played against in high school were about my size," he says. "But the guys in the NFL and in college, it's going to hurt a little bit more. I thought I'd have a better opportunity in soccer."
Bocanegra, in essence, remains a soccer player stuck in a football player's body and mindset. "And with a football player's touch every once in a while," he quips. "That's why I'm a defender."
At 33, Bocanegra - who has played for Fulham in the Barclays Premier League , Rennes and Saint-Etienne in the French League , Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Premier League and recently joined Racing Santander of Spain - doesn't look like a man in his 14th year of professional toil, playing one of the game's most demanding positions. Nor does he appear to have spent the last decade shuttling between continents a dozen or so times per season in order to slog through more than 100 caps for his country. His game has shown no signs of dropping off, parrying time's zeal to slow down the aging process. Four months into the US's 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign - Bocanegra's third cycle - the team captain being ousted from the back line remains unimaginable, even if he will be 35 in Brazil, ordinarily long past a player's expiration date.
"Maybe 10, 15 years ago, players got to 31, 32 and it was like, these guys need to be retiring pretty soon," says Bocanegra. "Now players are looking after themselves more, there's a lot more out there to help us, a lot more nutritional and sports performance information."
The American defender lives in the service of his own body, rather than the other way around. He perpetually seeks out edges and tinkers with his routine to optimize his output on the field. "I'm really into the performance side of things," he says. "For the last seven or eight years I've had a good program that I'm on - eating quite well, hydration, my supplements I take. That's helped me do well, keep my body fit. Now they're introducing new sciences and new techniques and I try parts of it and adapt it into my program as new information comes out. You need to take on board those new ideas and adapt to them to stay relevant. You have to be open-minded."
Bocanegra does pilates. He has his club and national team's strength and conditioning trainers observe him and make recommendations on things like hip movement, stride length and eagerly takes on their suggestions and exercises.
"Optimizing performance, and people get confused about this, is not just about lifting weights and box jumps and these things," he says. "It's a lot about stability and injury prevention that makes you stronger going forward. I naturally have quite weak lower abs and groin area. So maybe your glutes are too strong and you need to loosen those up and get more flexible. So you do hip exercises so there isn't so much tension on your adductors holding your legs together. These are the type of things that take place, it's not so much about throwing weights around or plyometrics. It's more research-driven than that."
If his body was a liability in football, it's been an asset in soccer. His willingness to play physically has made him a favorite of coaches and teammates alike. "I know I'm not the best player on the field every time and I know that I'm not the one that's on SportsCenter," Bocanegra says. "But for me it's really important to be someone who hopefully my teammates say: 'Damn, 'Los is giving it a hundred per cent every time and went into that tackle or ran that [ball] down or went into that header he knew he wasn't going to win, he's giving it everything.' And hopefully that rubs off."
A quiet leader, he has served as US captain for the last five years. It's helped his longevity that the game has veered into his sweet spot. Increasingly, soccer players are asked to be finely-honed athletes in addition to technicians. "The type of player is changing," says Bocanegra. "The days are gone where you're just bullying a forward all day. These guys are big and they want to bang into you as well."
The modern game appreciates his kind of pursuit for bodily perfection. That's what moved him to create a spinoff company from the business of maintaining Carlos Bocanegra's body: CB3 Sports Performance.
In April 2011, Bocanegra recruited his old strength coach from the Fire, hired three other performance specialists and began providing supplementary training to budding prospects in soccer, baseball, football and volleyball in his hometown. Ranging from age seven into adulthood, serious young athletes get age- and sport-appropriate skills training, conditioning, physical therapy and work on strength, flexibility and injury prevention. "We want it to be a professional environment," says Bocanegra. "We want to help kids get to the ceiling of their potential.
"I'm lucky enough to be exposed to all these new things - sciences, nutrition, performance studies," he adds. "I said, 'There's nothing like this in my area of Southern California, even though it's a [soccer] hotbed.'" His soccer program now counts between 80 and 120 kids three times per week.
Through his company, Bocanegra hopes to develop the next waves of durable American soccer players. For years, elite American players such as himself, like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Brad Friedel, Michael Bradley or Tim Howard - have proved exceptionally resistant to major injury. Bocanegra attributes it to an innate awareness of and care for the body as an instrument and a sporting culture that fosters superior all-around athleticism. "I think the biggest [difference] between European soccer players and American athletes is that we play more than one sport growing up. So we're already doing different drills and different things in basketball and American football than when you play soccer. It's a trade-off though, because a European has just played more soccer."
Bocanegra had several teams to choose from after Rangers went bankrupt, dropped into Scotland's fourth tier and could no longer afford his salary this summer - little doubt as there was that this 33-year old could still perform. So he will soldier on for another season and build out CB3, and perhaps get started on his coaching licenses.
But all that stuff is for when he's done playing, after his body breaks down. Provided he ever allows it to.