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Cobi Jones – Last lap for the dark horse

He was once the most famous player in the USA, and with 164 caps to his name, he also holds a national record. Now 37, Cobi Jones is in his final season of Major League Soccer (MLS).
Just one look at his accomplishments and credentials and you get the feeling that Cobi Jones always had it made. After all, he grew up in the football hotbed of southern California, went to a high-level college, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), played his entire US professional career with one club – the Los Angeles Galaxy – and accrued a record 164 appearances for the US national team.
He has certainly always stood out on the pitch thanks to his speed, but it has also helped that he was quite recognisable due to his dreadlocks and he even hosted an MTV show, Mega-Dose, for a while.
But always had it made? Well, not exactly. While blessed with talent and speed to burn, Jones has had to overcome more than enough discrimination and adversity – mainly because of his size (1.74m, 68kg) — to get to where he is today as he plays his final MLS professional season. “I took the time to talk to my family and friends and people I respected and decided this was the right time to do it,” Jones says.
Jones, who turned 37 on 16 June, has been one of the constants for a league that has grown in fits and starts. Not surprisingly, he has played an important role, not just in the development of the league, but in the USA team as well.
Incredible as it may sound, he almost did not get there at all, but his desire, heart, and, of course talent, prevailed. While growing up in Westlake Village, California — the same area that produced another US international, Eric Wynalda – Jones was dropped from his Olympic Development Program team not once but twice. In a country that has become accustomed to behemoth American gridiron football players, coaches thought Jones was too small to do the job. “I had to do more than other, bigger boys in my age groups in my early days in order to get picked by some coaches for a place in various teams,” he admits.
That did not deter him. When it came to college, he entered UCLA as a non-scholarship athlete. “I was the dark horse,” Jones recalls. “I had to believe in myself. Nobody knew who I was and those who did know didn’t think that I could make it, even at college level.”
Again, he was not put off. Jones became a second-team Ail-American before joining the US Olympic team and the US national team and never looked back. He played in three different midfield positions and as a forward, usually confounding defenders and leaving them for dust down the right flank.
“When Cobi came to UCLA, I don’t think he would have guessed that his career would be as long and as illustrious as it turned out to be,” said current Columbus Crew coach Sigi Schmid, who coached Jones at college, international and professional level. “I don’t think we would have guessed that at the outset. It was something that sort of rolled on. One thing led to another. All of a sudden, it was tremendous.”
Schmid remembers when Jones became a “pro” – during a match for the USA’s national B team against Dynamo Kiev at the President’s Cup in Korea Republic. “Cobi was outstanding for us. He was our best player,” said Schmid, who sat next to a motionless Jones in the locker room after the game. “I told him, ‘Now you know what it feels like to be a pro because you are mentally and physically exhausted. You gave everything you had in this game. If that is what drives you, you’ll have a great career’.”
Jones also played for Coventry City in England and had a short stint at Vasco da Gama in Brazil – joining only a handful of US players who have played professionally in three confederations – before returning to the USA to become one of the founding players in a fledgling league called MLS in 1996. He was allocated to the Galaxy.
To review Jones’ career is to take a minitour of US football and MLS at the loftiest levels. Jones is the Galaxy’s all-time leader in goals scored (68) and games played (292). His stand-out year was 1998, when he totalled 19 goals and 13 assists en route to MLS Best XI honours and the US Soccer Male Athlete of the Year award. He has played in five MLS Cups, winning twice (2002, 2005), and in two Lamar Hunt/ U.S. Open Cup-winning sides (2001, 2005). He has also participated in three FIFA World Cup™ competitions – 1994, 1998 and 2002 – and helped the USA reach a fourth in 2006. Less than a month after making his national team debut in 1992, Jones scored his first international goal and grabbed an assist in a win against Cote d’Ivoire. At the age of 27, he also became the youngest man in the world to crack the 100-cap barrier.
But there is so much more to football than just hard, cold numbers. There is a person with a heart beating behind the shirt. And the two shirts Jones has worn more than any in the past 15 years have been the gold, forest green and black of the Galaxy and the red, white and blue of the USA. He has worn those shirts with passion and pride, entertaining fans and picking up a quite a few wins, goals and assists along the way.
Before the 2002 season, Schmid asked Jones to tweak his game in order to focus on playmaking rather than goalscoring, and he tied his career-high of 13 assists as the Galaxy captured the MLS title. “He was just tremendous that year, setting up Guatemalan international Carlos Ruiz, setting up other people. Cobi is not a 24/7 football guy,” Schmid says. “He always needs his space away from the game, but when he’s out there training, he’s extremely competitive. That has allowed him to achieve what he has achieved. He competes with a smile.”
Now Jones has but a few games to provide some more heroics and magic for one last time. He has not had time to figure out what his legacy to the game will be. “I’m still playing this game,” he smiles. “I’m still in the forest looking through the trees. It was a little eye-opening to kind of see how other people viewed me because I’m still out there having fun, still kicking the ball around. I don’t see a lot of the things other people see. I’m glad that it [his legacy] is there, because hopefully it will give me a lot of opportunities in the future to continue the growth of football in this country.”