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WORLD CUP ’94 / 22 DAYS AND COUNTING : Making the Cut : Americans Hope Opponents Will Dread Facing Cobi Jones

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cobimania had reached the upscale halls of the Westin Bonaventure a couple of weeks ago. Cobi Jones can run very fast, but on this day he couldn’t hide, at least not from his fans.

His fast-growing following found him and gathered around him everywhere he moved. Businessmen posed with him for pictures. He signed soccer balls, programs, trading cards and pieces of paper.

A savvy autograph veteran, Jones pointed out which pens worked on which surfaces. He engaged in chit-chat with his most fervent constituency-- giggling teen-age girls.

One had some valuable information, telling him, “There’s a guy who is in my seventh-grade class that looks like you.”

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Said Jones: “Good-looking guy, right?”

Cobi look-a-likes?

Should the U.S. soccer team have any success in the World Cup, there might be a whole generation of soccer playing, Cobi-wannabes, legions of charismatic midfielders wearing dreadlocks and mega-watt smiles.

The high-visibility, low-maintenance dreadlocks are what turned Jones from a promising prospect into soccer’s Andre Agassi, an eye-catching icon for the MTV crowd. He opted for the easier hairstyle before the 1992 Olympics and it quickly became a hit.

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His mother, Mada, caught a glimpse of Cobi’s growing popularity during a game at Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills High when the crowd started chanting his name. A spectator turned to Mada Jones and asked a question.

“He said: ‘Is he a soccer star or a rock star?’ ” she said.

Mada had an answer--at least by the process of elimination, saying: “Well, he doesn’t sing.”

Jones leaves that to teammate Alexi Lalas, who has the second-most talked about hair on the squad. Maybe Lalas is the heir to Jones, so to speak. In September, Lalas helped open the team’s Mission Viejo training center with a song and an announcement that he was selling some of Jones’ hair afterward.

“The price has gone way up since then,” Lalas said, smiling.

While the hair helps make the image, the topic can get tiresome. Pat Riley backed up his hair with championships, Barry Melrose didn’t. Agassi got there, eventually. Yannick Noah did too, but got so sick of the subject, he shed his dreadlocks and jokingly announced he lost his strength.

“Do I get sick of it? Truthfully, yeah,” Jones said. “But what do I expect? To have this kind of hair and not have questions?”

The dreadlock decision filled at least part of the Jones household with, well, dread. His father, Freeman, dissented.

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“He’s a bit conservative,” Mada Jones said. “But you know how moms are. I teach junior high and I’m more in there with the trends. I think I was a bit more prepared for it. His father had to go along, it was two to one.”

Kind of like a soccer score. Then Cobi’s two brothers made it a 4-1 blowout. Now everyone is used to the dreadlocks.

“It fits the shape of his face,” Mada Jones said. “I’m proud of the way he’s handling the attention. He’s very much at ease with it. It’s like an inborn trait and it keeps him cool.”

More and more, Jones has needed that attribute. His brother Bruce was once crushed against a railing when a crowd of about 20 teen-age girls mobbed Jones for his autograph after a game in Washington.

Saturday, Jones turned down a fan’s autograph request after a game against the German team Bayern Munich in Cleveland. A teen-age boy tried to swipe his jersey in the postgame crush, perhaps thinking a distracted Jones wouldn’t notice. Wrong.

“I just grabbed it back,” Jones said. “Then he had the gall to ask me for an autograph. That was probably the first one I didn’t give. There’s nothing wrong with having a little common courtesy.”

That incident was unusual. Almost all of his fan contact and mail is refreshingly normal. “Most of it is from young kids, around 10 or 11,’ he said. “I don’t get anything from 20-year-olds. There’s nothing bad, nothing pornographic. I don’t think we’ve gotten to that level yet.”

Jones prides himself on filling all the autograph requests possible. There have been times when the team bus has rolled away, leaving him behind to forage for rides from fans or stadium workers. He is enjoying his celebrity, simply because his soccer accomplishments have almost always surpassed his expectations.

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He made the team as a walk-on at UCLA in 1988, was cut twice by the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 but played in all three matches in Barcelona, and months later scored once and added two assists against the Ivory Coast in his third match with the national team.

Don’t look for praise, however, from U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic. “I don’t talk about young players,” Milutinovic said.

Jones’ speed along the flanks can create space. It also gives him the ability to provide a last-minute boost, the way he did against Bolivia, scoring the late goal in a 1-1 tie at the Joe Robbie Cup in February.

Jones will turn 24 on June 16, two days before the United States’ first game of the World Cup in Pontiac, Mich., against Switzerland. Although Jones has spent most of his life in Southern California (Westlake Village), he was born in Detroit when his father was in a doctorate program at Wayne State University.

This season, Jones is the only U.S. player to appear in all 17 matches, starting every one. He leads the team in minutes played.

The rapid accumulation of international experience is helping Jones, although he can’t exactly explain how or why.

“I never really know because I always feel I’m playing the same,” he said. “I guess that’s for outsiders to say. After we lost (to Bayern Munich), someone said to me, ‘You must be proud of how well you played.’ But that’s like someone giving advice about relationships and they can’t handle their own problems with relationships.”

Jones does not believe in giving advice--about soccer or anything else. He was asked and turned down the chance to be on KROQ’s “Love Line” program with teammates Lalas and Tony Meola. His hipness does not extend into the Masters and Johnson field.

“I wasn’t going to get into that,” he said. “It’s a dangerous area. I knew what kind of questions are asked and there were questions about (a listener’s) sex life.”

Potential embarrassment was not entirely averted. Jones agreed to do a turn on KROQ’s “Reggae Revolution.” Somehow, nestled between cuts of Bob Marley and Black Uhuru, the host posed a question.

“He asked me what I thought of the Switzerland coach not allowing his players to have sex during the World Cup,” Jones said. “What did I think of that? And did Bora have those rules?”

So what did Jones say?

The soccer field isn’t the only place where he is elusive. “I dodged it,” he said, laughing.

Jones would prefer some day to be asking questions, at least when his soccer career ends, which seems far off. After the World Cup, he will probably play in Europe. In the fall of 1992, he trained with FC Cologne of the German first division.

But Jones could see himself in law school if he wasn’t playing soccer. Ideally, the emphasis would be on environmental law, combining a career with one of his primary concerns.

“I worry about things that can disappear when I’m doing my thing,” said Jones, who was once an avid scuba diver. “Like the rain forest. Not the fact that the rain forest is so big and immense and that it will disappear.

“But by the time I get there it will be so varied from what it is now. Those are the things I wonder about. I want to be able to see everything.”

For now, soccer is helping Jones see the world.

And as for saving it?

First things first.

The World’s Cup today, the rest of it tomorrow.


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