The United States' remorseless march to next year's World Cup finals in South Africa is being underpinned by a spirit of togetherness in their squad both on and off the pitch, according to captain Carlos Bocanegra.
The Americans have been a fixture in the last five FIFA World Cups™ and only a fool would bet against them making it six in a row after their start to the final round of qualifying in the North, Central America and the Caribbean zone. They sit pretty at the top of the six-team standings after three matches, a convincing opening-day victory over chief rivals Mexico a sure sign they are the team to beat in the region.
Bocanegra, the skipper of the Stars and Stripes, knows there is a long way to go before their spot in the finals is secured but is delighted at the progress his close-knit squad are making. "It's a pretty exciting time for the team," the Rennes defender said. "We have a few guys in the team who are great leaders so I am lucky in that respect.
"We have a dynamic coach (Bob Bradley), the players are friends off the pitch so we know each other well - that shows in our performances on the pitch. It's a great team effort," he went on. "We are happy with the start we have made but we know there is a lot of work left to do. We just have to keep going and keep approaching these games with the right mentality."
Bocanegra, whose reputation as a top-class defender continues to flourish thanks to a superb first season in France, is relishing his time as captain of his country - something he says is "an unbelievable honour, something you can't put into words".
It is beginning to hit home that he could be leading the US out in a FIFA World Cup finals, with only maybe complacency standing in their way of qualifying. The draw away to El Salvador is the Americans' only slip-up so far in CONCACAF qualification, something Bocanegra feels his team can learn from. "We have won our two home games (against Mexico then Trinidad & Tobago) but we were disappointed with the draw in El Salvador," he said. "It just shows that on the world stage, the supposed smaller countries are not easy to play against.
"Each one of them is getting better and it's not easy for these bigger teams to just turn up and expect to beat them. We have to focus just as much in these games," he added.
The US have two more qualifiers coming up in June, against Costa Rica and Honduras, but Bocanegra has the club season to finish before then. After failing to agree a new deal at Fulham, the 29-year-old left London and opted for a fresh challenge when he signed a three-year contract with Rennes - a Ligue 1 team who have consistently finished in the European spots over the past few years.
The spotlight has not been so intense since quitting the Premier League but his seamless transition to life in a physical and tactical French top flight has been impressive to see. He is part of a defence that, save for a couple of hiccups, is the strongest in the country and will tomorrow feature in the final of the French Cup - a match he maintains is up there with the biggest in his club career.
He admits things could not have gone much better following his cross-channel switch. "I've really enjoyed it," said Bocanegra, who continues to receive private French tutoring. "I came into a team that already had some great players. And I was joining a backline that was already well organised. The first half of the season was great because we went 20 or so games in a row without a defeat. For a while, we had the best goals-against record in the league and that was something to be proud of. We have only recently started to let some in."
The laid-back Californian has two years left on his contract at the Brittany club and insists he is going nowhere for the time being. The summer of 2010, which should take in his second finals experience, will more likely be the time when he reviews his plans for the future. "When I sign a contract, I go into it with the intention of finishing it," he said. "Of course things can change. But I'm happy here and I see no reason why I'd want to move.
"My last year here is right after the World Cup. I'll have one season left so maybe then will be the time to look at everything," he said. "I really like Spain as a country. It would be a dream move for me to play one season there."