Sunday, March 25, 2007

An Appreciation for Cobi Jones

Cobi Jones first caught my attention when he appeared on the cover of a shiny new issue of SI for Kids back in May 1994. He, along with then-US Men’s National Teammate Alexi Lalas, were cartoonishly displayed pulling each other's trademark hairstyles (Jones with his dreadlocks and Lalas with his shaggy red goatee) in a humorous attempt to cajole a smile out of a 12-year-old reader like myself.

It's been 13 years since that very magazine was firmly clutched in my warm preadolescent hands. Since then, it's fair to say that not only has Cobi Jones become the face of Major League Soccer (a league that didn't even exist at the date of the publication), but the face of American soccer as well. The announcement of his retirement following the 2007 season is tearful news to anyone who follows the American game. Likewise, it's also a gift to every MLS fan: the opportunity for a season-long farewell to not only one of the league's greatest players, but one of its greatest ambassadors.

To truly appreciate what Cobi has achieved during the course of his illustrious soccer career - a career he did envision lasting beyond high school - one must recall the sport's landscape during early 1990s. The US Men's National Team, which had successfully wormed its way into its first World Cup in forty years, was prematurely booted out of Italia '90. Although USA '94 held much promise in terms of the country's acceptance of soccer, there were no guarantees of success thereafter. Top-flight professional soccer had been absent from the American sports scene since the North American Soccer League folded in 1985, and the league's demise was a stark reminder that it would take more than hopes and dreams to firmly establish a top-tier circuit.

When USA '94 arrived, there was Cobi, playing alongside a band of Yanks performing surprisingly well, before bravely bowing out 0-1 to eventual champion Brazil. The commercial success of USA '94 gave soccer enthusiasts renewed hope that soccer could flourish someday. The debut of Major League Soccer, originally scheduled for a Spring 1995 launch, was instead delayed until the following year. Meanwhile, Cobi waited patiently in England, playing for Coventry City in the EPL. When MLS finally got its act together in 1996, there was Cobi, ready to take on the challenge of convincing a country that had long shunned the game that soccer had a place among the landscape.

During the first years of the league, predictions of the league's imminent fold were fodder for many detractors. The contraction of Miami and Tampa only fueled further speculation that American pro soccer was in trouble. All the while, there was Cobi yet again, grinding his wheels for the only MLS club he would ever play for, the Los Angeles Galaxy, in a market crucial to the league's success.

It is only fitting that Cobi says goodbye after the 2007 season, a season which will mark the arrival of international soccer icon David Beckham in July. For a brief time, an international icon will play alongside an American icon. Forget the idea that this is a "passing of the torch" moment, with Cobi's "goodbye" coinciding with Beckham's "'ello"as this wonderful transition. Beckham, despite his worldwide appeal and undeniable skill, will never scale the frontiers that Cobi overcame so admirably his career.

In short, he was a driving force behind the league's success. Beckham will arrive at a critical moment for MLS - however, it's because of players like Cobi that MLS was able to reach this critical juncture in the first place.

He could have played out his career at Coventry City or another EPL club, and made a name for himself with the English. He could have basked in the glow of three World Cup appearances and 164 national team caps, only to skip town in between for the stability that international leagues provided. He could have thrived abroad, well outside of the realm of an American soccer culture which absolutely needed its very own homegrown heroes. He didn't. He chose instead to confront the skeptics, detractors and critics of pro soccer in the States by becoming not only one of MLS’s flagship players, but a de facto spokesman as well. He could have found professional success elsewhere. Instead, he chose something else. He chose to be a pioneer.

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