Advertisement

Hair Apparent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before there was Kobe, there was Cobi.

The MTV smile, the signature dreadlocks, the blur of speed . . . they seem to have been a part of the American soccer landscape forever.

In fact, it’s been only a decade.

But who, exactly, is Cobi Jones? And what sort of person is this who figures to run away with Major League Soccer’s most-valuable-player award this season?

Advertisement

The only thing television shows is the occasional clip of him racing down the wing for the U.S. national team or slamming home yet another goal for the Galaxy.

But who is he?

“He’s just a quality person to be around,” Galaxy defender Paul Caligiuri says. “He’s so upbeat and positive all the time. You just get that feeling, both on and off the field.

“When he plays, you can see that he’s enjoying the game. That’s why he’s successful.”

Advertisement

So successful that Jones led the Galaxy with 19 goals and 13 assists in 24 games this season. So successful that the Dallas Burn will key on him when the best-of-three, first-round MLS playoff series begins at the Rose Bowl on Thursday night.

But who is he?

“He’s a great guy, a great kid,” Galaxy Coach Octavio Zambrano says. “Always positive. Always intense. A competitor in everything from playing soccer-tennis in the locker room to soccer-golf in the park to five-on-five in training, to anything. It forces everybody else to be that way as well.

“He has a lot going for himself, but I think he still has his head screwed on right.

“He’s a lucky kid, but he’s earned a lot of what he has. He came onto the American soccer scene at the right time and he’s the right guy for what he’s doing. These MTV appearances and all these things are good for the sport and obviously good for him. But he hasn’t shown any signs of being a conceited kid or an arrogant kid. He’s a humble kid still.”

A “kid” of 28, but the question remains, who is he?

The record books point to more than 100 appearances with the men’s national team, a feat matched by only two other players.

They point to an NCCA championship with UCLA, the Olympics in Spain, two World Cup tournaments and three MLS seasons, each better than the one before. But those are merely statistics.

Advertisement

To find the man behind the numbers, it’s necessary to talk to the player himself and ask if all of this came about by accident or design.

“It’s just kind of something that happened,” Jones said Sunday at the Rose Bowl. “It kept going and going. Situations kept turning up where it was hard to say no and it ended up leading to this.

“Sigi [Schmid, UCLA’s coach] came and talked to me and kind of recruited me [at Westlake High], but I had no plans for playing soccer in college, no plans for playing soccer after college, no plans for the Olympics or the World Cup or playing overseas or playing here.

“I wanted to be a doctor when I first went into school, and then I decided I wanted to go into environmental law.”

Given that, does he appreciate what he has accomplished in the sport?

“I really don’t look at it and go, ‘Wow! I’ve achieved a lot,’ ” he said. “Right now, I’m still in the midst of it and I still want to keep pushing forward. Once it’s all over, then I can look back.”

When the rocking chair beckons and famed dreadlocks have turned white?

Jones laughed.

Advertisement

“I don’t think I’ll have the dreads then. I think they’ll be long gone. I’m going to go to something new soon.”

The dreadlocks, now so much a part of the Jones persona that if anyone tried to copy him they would look foolish, haven’t always been there. In his UCLA days, he sported a different look.

“The hairdo he had then, we called it ‘the visor,’ ” Schmid said. “It sort of came out in front and it almost looked like a [sun] visor.

“It was in ’88 and [Dutch star Ruud] Gullit really hit it big in the European Championship. I had come back from Germany, where I’d watched Euro ’88, and I remember joking around with Cobi. I said, ‘You know, you should let it go a little bit, you never know. A little [Frank] Rijkaard-look, a little Gullit-look,’ and eventually he did.”

All of which must have come as a bit of a shock to his parents who enrolled him in AYSO, the American Youth Soccer Organization, when he was only 5.

“It’s just kind of something that all the kids were doing in the early ‘70s, when the soccer boom really started,” he said. “There were really no players I wanted to emulate or anything. I was just going out and having fun.”

He still is, but there is a hard edge to his game after a few years at or near the top.

“I’ve got a competitive nature. I like the sport and I want to be the best at it. I want to win.”

Zambrano said the attitude shows itself in games and in training.

“I think Cobi is a guy who leads by example,” he said. “He goes out there and does it and then he looks around and expects you to do it as well, or at least to put in the same type of intensity.”

But there’s more to Jones’ life than playing soccer. Hosting his MTV show, for example.

“I like it. It’s something different. I’m not a player who can be with soccer 24-7 [24 hours a day, seven days a week].”

Not that he was comfortable right away before the cameras.

“It’s not as easy as actors and actresses make it out to be,” he said. “It’s a lot harder, trying to remember all the lines and everything. It’s very difficult. But I enjoy it.”

Could it be a career option after he has hung up his No. 13 jersey?

“Maybe, but more along the lines of broadcasting. I’d have a good time doing that, I think.”

Soccer play-by-play or color commentary might be one thing, but he’d have to change to become a sportscaster.

“I’m a fan of other sports but, like most people, I usually don’t pay attention to them too much until it gets down to crunch time.

“Baseball, I can only watch the World Series--except that now with the home run chase I actually listened on the news for the highlights.

“Football, I can watch the playoffs. Basketball, I like the playoffs.”

So does the Galaxy’s Cobi know the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant?

“I’ve met him a couple of times,” he said. [It was] nothing much, just ‘Hey, what’s up?’ ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That’s about it. ‘Cool name,’ ‘Cool name.’ ”

Caligiuri, another former Bruin and Jones’ roommate on the road with the Galaxy, offers another side to Jones’ personality.

“He likes a private life,” he said. “What I think he enjoys most is the beach. He’s really a beach bum at heart.”

To which Jones adds a few details.

“I like to scuba dive, but because of my MLS contract I can’t do that. Skiing and snow-boarding, off-roading in my Jeep. “I like to read. That sounds very boring but I like reading. I’m an avid fan of sword and sorcery.”

It would take some magic, though, for Jones to be earning what Alan Rothenberg, MLS’ founder, suggested recently that some American players are earning in salary and endorsements.

“Let’s see, three years in this league at a million a year. I should be living at Malibu right now.”

Instead, he lives in the Calabasas area and is making the MLS maximum, $250,000 a season.

But he is known nationwide.

“We usually go to a movie the night before a road game and no matter where we go, he’s recognized,” Caligiuri said. “It just shows you where soccer’s going. We need more players and personalities like that.

“I think one thing Cobi did is, he’s lived up to his image by his performance on the field.”

Schmid, who has sent more players into MLS than any other college coach, agrees.

“I think tactically he has improved a tremendous amount,” Schmid said. “He just understands the game so much better, he reads off other players so much better. He’s also improved himself technically in terms of being able to play on the left side of the field. He’s very versatile now. He can play right or left.”

Which makes him invaluable to the Galaxy and the U.S. team and means that Cobi Jones still will be a factor in the Japan-South Korea World Cup.

“I don’t see any reason why Cobi can’t still be there in 2002,” Schmid said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Galaxy vs. Dallas

(Best of Three)

* Thursday: Dallas at Galaxy, 7 p.m.

* Sunday: Galaxy at Dallas, noon.

* Oct. 7: Dallas at Galaxy, 7:30 p.m.-x

x-if necessary

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MLS Playoffs

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS (Best of three)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

* Today: Miami at D.C. United, 5 p.m.; N.Y.-N.J. at Columbus, 4:30 p.m.

* Saturday: Columbus at N.Y.-N.J., 4 p.m.

* Sunday: D.C. United at Miami, 4:30 p.m.

* Oct. 7: Miami at D.C. United, 4:30 p.m., if necessary; N.Y.-N.J. at Columbus, 4:30 p.m., if necessary.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

* Thursday: Dallas at Galaxy, 7 p.m.; Colorado at Chicago, 5 p.m.

* Sunday: Galaxy at Dallas, noon.

* Monday: Chicago at Colorado, 6 p.m.

* Oct. 7: Colorado at Chicago, 6 p.m., if necessary; Dallas at Galaxy, 7:30 p.m., if necessary.

CONFERENCE FINALS (Best of three)

* Scheduled Oct. 9-21

CHAMPIONSHIP

* At Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Sunday, Oct. 25

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Footprints

A look at Cobi Jones through the years:

June 16, 1970--Born in Detroit.

1988--Earns letters in track and soccer at Westlake High.

1988--Enrolls at UCLA and joins Bruin soccer team as a walk-on.

1990--Wins NCAA championship with UCLA.

1991--Plays on gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the Pan American Games in Cuba.

1992--Plays for U.S. in the Barcelona Olympics, where Cobi the player meets Cobi the mascot.

Sept. 3, 1992--Makes his U.S. national team debut, versus Canada.

Oct. 19, 1992--Scores his first goal for the U.S., versus Ivory Coast.

1994--Plays in his first World Cup, in the United States.

Aug. 8, 1994--Signs with Coventry City in England.

Sept. 16. 1994--Makes his English league debut.

1995--Plays half a season for Vasco da Gama in Brazil; helps U.S. reach semifinals of the Copa America tournament in Uruguay.

1996--Joins Major League Soccer and is assigned to the Galaxy.

April 13, 1996--Scores Galaxy’s first goal, versus the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Feb. 10, 1998--Becomes only the third player to play 100 games for the U.S., in historic first victory over Brazil at the Coliseum.

1998--Plays in his second World Cup, in France.


Advertisement