Cobi Jones: The USA's Footballing Revolutionary
In 1996 the inaugural season of Major League Soccer began in the United States of America. This new franchise was warmly welcomed in the US, with this revamped league set to ignite a new-found passion for soccer across the country.
As the 10 founding member teams prepared to make waves in the footballing world, the LA Galaxy eagerly awaited their first official game since their foundation in June 1994.
The Galaxy hosted New York's MetroStars in front of 69,225 spectators at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena. What these fans did not realize was the fact they were witnessing a piece of Los Angeles history and the birth of America's most successful football team.
The game finished 2-1 to LA, with the club's first-ever goal coming from the energetic spark in midfield, a certain Cobi Jones.
Jones would go on to be one of the greatest servants the club has ever seen, revolutionizing the game in the States with his undeniable talent and drive.
This article aims to showcase how Jones, a player who initially started his collegiate soccer career as a non-scholarship player, went on to become the United States' most capped player, earning his way into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
LA Galaxy Inaugural Game, Source: AS English
The Early Days
Born in Detroit, Michigan in June 1970, a young Jones and his family packed up for the West Coast early in his life, growing up in Southern California where his first taste of football came aged 5, playing the beautiful came with The American Youth Soccer Organization.
It was at this established youth set-up where he would fall in love with the game, with Jones going on to do great things at Westlake High School.
His performances at underage level certainly had the collegiate scouts in awe, as UCLA eventually came knocking. His hopes initially were not in the realm of soccer but rather in environmental law, a career path which Jones desired to pursue.
Strangely enough however, unlike most of his eventual USMNT counterparts, Jones would make the prestigious UCLA Bruins roster as a non-scholarship player, essentially a walk-on.
Who could have imagined a player not even offered a scholarship would go on to become one of the most pivotal players in the history of the United States' national team.
His recent inclusion in the Pac-12-All Century Team strongly highlights what type of college career Jones would go on to have.
From his walk-on in 1988, Jones went on to score 12 goals for the Bruins, whilst also being tied for the lead in career assists at the Californian University, leading them to an NCAA Championship, and also being named as an All-American second-team player by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in 1991 for good measure.
Jones Playing for UCLA, Source: pac-12.com
Jones' decorated collegiate career opened up many doors for him in the footballing world. His inclusion at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for the USA's U-23 team only highlights this, with the young midfielder's performances garnering much attention from the USMNT hierarchy.
Senior head coach Bora Milutinovic would hand Jones the chance at playing in the 1994 World Cup on home soil, selecting him as part of U.S. Soccer's 18-month World Cup residency program in Mission Viejo before the finals. An initiative in which Jones along with former stars Brad Friedel, Alexi Lalas, and Claudio Reyna would be contracted full-time to US soccer.
After appearing as a substitute in the first round of the World Cup against Switzerland, Colombia, and Romania, Jones played the entire match in front of a home crowd on July 4 in a loss to Brazil. His World Cup debut was not covered in glory, however, Jones did secure himself a move to the Premier League signing for Phil Neal's Coventry City.
Life at the sky blues wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for young Jones, who failed to hold down a regular starting place in his first season at Highfield Road.
Failing to make an outstanding mark in twenty appearances for the Midlands outfit, Jones did manage to hit the winner versus Norwich, following that up with a screamer against Crystal Palace.
Ultimately though, stronger teammates such as Gordon Strachan & Kevin Richardson were chosen ahead of the inexperienced Jones who sought a move elsewhere to advance his career.
Jones, Coventry City, Source: Yahoo
Vasco da Gama
Following a string of impressive performances at the 1995 edition of the Copa America where the US finished in an admirable fourth-place, Jones' name and stand-out dreadlocks began to accumulate much attention in the great footballing continent of South America.
After the competition, he became a popular player in Latin America because of the nickname used by an Argentine commentator to call him: "Escobillón" ("swab"), due to his bleached dreadlock hairstyle and the similar pronunciation of his name.
It is for this reason why Brazillian greats Vasco da Gama came calling.
However, again for young Jones, this lucrative offer from abroad did not end in spectacular fashion.
Just four appearances for Vasco, one of which was allegedly played at left-back, had Jones stuck in the mud, however, the next path he chose in his footballing career would elevate him to new heights.
In 1996, football or soccer was still fresh in the mind of the US fans who had enjoyed one of the most successful World Cups of all-time just two years prior.
A resurgence in the sport was carefully analyzed over previous years, with the newly established Major League Soccer intended to fulfill the void market looking for a fresh, new, competitive league across America.
One of its founding members?... a certain LA Galaxy, who had placed the young Jones at the top of their transfer wishlist.
Playing weekly in the familiar surroundings of the Rose Bowl, Jones quickly established himself as a fan favorite in LA.
His first two seasons brought a combined total of fourteen goals & ten assists for the Galaxy, but nonetheless, it was his showing in the 1998/99 season that really got people talking.
Nineteen goals & thirteen assists, Jones was the first name in the MLS Best XI of that season, whilst also claiming the accolade of US Soccer Athlete of the Year.
His consistency would not fluctuate throughout the remainder of his senior career.
Always there to contribute with a goal or an assist, Jones guided LA to a number of honors during his long tenure with the club, which included;
CONCACAF Champions' Cup (1): 2000
MLS Cup (2): 2002, 2005
Supporters' Shield (2): 1998, 2002
U.S. Open Cup (2): 2001, 2005
Western Conference (playoffs) (5): 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2005
In 2005, he became the last player in MLS to remain with his original team since 1996. A true staple of the league which has most definitely gone through some dark and unprofitable times.
Jones, LA Galaxy, Source: lagconfidential.com
With a total of 70 goals in 306 appearances for the West coast side, Jones had revolutionized the game of soccer in the States, proving you don't always need to make the move overseas in order to have a widely recognized career.
Jones played his last game with the Galaxy on October 21, 2007, against Chicago Fire. Twelve years at LA Galaxy, it is no doubt that Jones truly deserves to be categorized as a one-club-man.
His #13 jersey was deservedly retired by the Galaxy in the wake of his retirement, making it the first number retired in MLS history.
Jones would again be involved with his beloved LA Galaxy in his post-retirement days, serving as interim manager in 2008 following the resignation of Ruud Gullit. He would go on to pursue a more comfortable role as assistant manager under Gullit's successor Bruce Arena.
Jones did not sit back and admire his previous triumphs for the USMNT at the 1994 World Cup and Copa America of the following summer. Instead, he built on these performances.
With rivalries aside every time he put on the US jersey, MLS fans from East Coast to West would chant the name of Cobi Jones.
Giving 100% in every game, Jones would leave little on the pitch whether it be in the World Cup against giants Brazil, or a CONCACAF qualifier versus minnows Saint Kitts and Nevis.
The all-time record appearance holder in USMNT history, Jones represented his country from 1992-2004, earning a whopping 164 caps along the way, playing in three World Cups (1994, 1998, 2002).
Jones, World Cup 1994, Source: MLS Soccer. com
He also notched 15 goals over the course of his national team career, including two at the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup which aided his inclusion in the Best XI at this particular tournament.
Jones would one-up his performances of two years prior at the 2002 edition of the Gold Cup. Now vastly experienced, Jones would pick up his only piece of international silverware in a hard-fought final versus Costa Rica.
A pivotal figure in US soccer, Jones was selected for induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2011 (his first year of eligibility), capping off a truly wonderful career on home soil.
The MLS' first true superstar.