Friday, October 19, 2007

ATH: Cobi Jones

Cobi Jones' legacy should not be forgotten Jamie Trecker / Special to

Cobi Jones may play for the final time in a Los Angeles Galaxy jersey, at home, tonight.

It might prove to be a quiet end for a career that spans two decades, but Jones' home bow will wrap up a career that helped define modern American soccer. Jones is one of the final links still active today, bridging the dark days of U.S. Soccer in the wilderness to the expectations of today.

Statistics only tell you so much about what Jones meant to American soccer:

# He is far and away the all-time caps leader in U.S. Soccer history, with 164 games under his belt from 1992-2006. He is second only to Landon Donovan on the all-time assists toteboard (22). His 15 goals are good enough to be tied for 7th on the all-time scoring list.
# He appeared in three straight World Cups, from 1994-2002, and arguably should have been considered for the 2006 roster.
# He will pass an astonishing 25,000 minutes in a Galaxy uniform, having played all 12 seasons in Los Angeles — the only player in MLS history to do so.

Jones should be remembered as a trailblazer. He was the first American player to sign with a Brazilian club (Vasco da Gama) and he was one of a very few American players to get a chance in England. And, alongside Robin Fraser and Desmond Armstrong, he helped integrate what had been an overwhelmingly white American national team.

He should be remembered as a leader of one of MLS' most successful franchises. Jones scored the first ever goal for the Galaxy (Wynalda's strike for the now-defunct Clash was MLS' first) and has presided over a club that has won two MLS Cups, two U.S. Open Cups and the CONCACAF Champions' Cup back in 2000.

It's odd then, that Jones seems like a forgotten man. He is no longer one of the faces of the American game and while Jones was one of the most important founders of MLS back in 1996, it's uncertain how his legacy will hold up. Like Tab Ramos and Tony Meola, Jones may fade into memory, overshadowed by the more visible and the more boisterous.

Why is that?

One of the reasons Jones doesn't enjoy the currency that John Harkes, Eric Wynalda or Brian McBride does is because he was one of the rare athletes who did not court the sports media in an era when few people paid any attention at all to the sport. He made few allies in the sports pages with an approach that often seemed sullen and withdrawn. Few reporters bothered to investigate why.

The truth is that Jones was a man who had been burned. In 1994, he became one of the first African-Americans to play in England, signing a one-year deal with Coventry City. The experience was jarring. He was mercilessly and cruelly taunted for his race from the terraces, and he returned to America the next year a changed man.

What Jones demanded was respect and privacy; he has always been smart enough to demand attention on his own terms, and that approach didn't always sit well with a sometimes-selfish (and self-important) media. It was hardly a radical approach for an athlete, but for a soccer player — in an era where some even questioned if soccer was really a sport — it was dramatic.

And for a while, Jones got what he demanded and deserved. In the mid 1990's Jones was a genuine celebrity, perhaps the first in America since Pele to speak beyond soccer's small enclave. He was a regular on MTV and in the pages of Teen Beat and for a few years, Jones was the face of not just the American game but also the promise that sport might one hold.

Today, Jones' floppy dreadlocks and flank runs no longer register with the sports world at large. As Jones has diligently, even quietly, carved out a Hall of Fame career with the Galaxy, the sport has moved on. It's no longer rare to see an American in England, let alone overseas. It's no longer a novelty to see an American soccer player on television.

A great share of that is due to Jones, who not only paved the way for men like Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride abroad but for greater acceptance of African-American athletes like DaMarcus Beasley, Tony Sanneh and Tim Howard at home.

That's Jones' true legacy, and in every way that matters, the most important.

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