FOREIGN CONCEPT

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How much is a dream worth?

In Cobi Jones' case, $5 million might just about do it, but even then there's no guarantee.

Jones--the "other Cobi" in Kobe-rich Los Angeles--is nearing the end of his contract with Major League Soccer and the idea of another European adventure is tugging strongly on the trademark dreadlocks of the Galaxy's most recognizable and popular player.

France is singing its siren song--or perhaps the tune is Spanish or Italian--and Jones is finding it difficult to resist.

So difficult, in fact, that the opening offer on the table for MLS is this: To keep the U.S. national team striker in Los Angeles beyond this season, the league will have to come up with $5 million for five years.

Guaranteed.

Is Jones, from Westlake Village, worth $1 million a season? Sigi Schmid, the Galaxy coach, won't venture into those waters, but knows what the player has been worth to him, personally, since Jones strolled onto his UCLA team in 1988.

Earlier this month, Jones became the all-time appearance leader for the U.S. national team, overtaking another Los Angeles-area player, Marcelo Balboa of Cerritos. His 129 caps leave him within easy striking distance of the world record of 150 held by Germany's Lothar Matthaeus. By 2002, the record should be Jones'.

Asked if he could have envisioned Jones achieving such success when he first encountered him in Westwood a dozen years ago, Schmid smiled.

"I think that's a huge accomplishment," he said. "There are very few players in the world who have more caps than him now, and to be the all-time leader for the U.S. is tremendous.

"I don't think even Cobi had any thought that he was going to do that when he came to UCLA. He's really come a very, very long way. Would I have predicted this in '88? Probably not.

"Cobi, physically, does a great job of taking care of himself. He does the right things that he has to from the standpoint of eating and fitness and everything else. He's somebody who definitely can play into his 30s."

That's just as well, because Jones turned 30 on June 16.

"The thing with Cobi too, is that his game has developed," Schmid continued. "He's improved. He was a player who was purely speed, purely effort. Now he has a lot more finesse to his game, he has a lot more tactical understanding of the game and can impact a game in different ways. He knows how to choose his moments much, much better. So he'll continue to be able to play [at a high level]."

But just where that will be is the question.

Jones, who currently earns a league-maximum $270,000, excluding his endorsement and television income, is one of only four Galaxy players who have been with the team since the start of MLS in 1996--the others are Mauricio Cienfuegos, Robin Fraser and Greg Vanney--and has said he is happy here.

"It would be a great opportunity [to join a foreign team]," he said. "You always want to play where you think the best soccer is. But then I'd like to stay here [too]. This is home. The fans are great here, the organization has been great here. It's just a matter of seeing if we can work out something."

So, all things being equal, would Jones stay or go?

"That's a good question," he said. "Before, I would have said I'd rather stay here, but you always [wonder] what it would be like to go back over [to Europe] and test yourself a little bit and just experience some of the places that I've always wanted to live. And to have a team there that would want me makes it very inviting."

Jones declined to identify which team or teams are interested in acquiring him, but acknowledged that he has long yearned to play in the French league.

"I've always liked France," he said. "There are other places, Spain, England. There are a lot of countries over there that I'd like to try."

Jones had a successful season with Coventry City in England's Premier League in 1994-95 and spent half a season with Vasco da Gama in Brazil's first division in 1995-96, but those spells abroad only served to whet his appetite.

He knows, however, that wherever he goes, he has to be starting, not watching from the bench.

"It's always difficult," he said. "You're always going to have to play well and Americans are always going to be the ones looked upon as, 'Is he really worth it? Is he good enough?' But you always want to go over there and give it a shot and see what comes of it."

Oddly enough, Jones is having his best season ever for the national team, but the goals that are flowing freely for the U.S. are not coming as easily with the Galaxy.

Shortly before the recent U.S. Cup, national team Coach Bruce Arena was asked about Jones' goal drought in L.A.

"Cobi has proven himself to be a good player," Arena said. "I realize it hasn't been a perfect situation this year in L.A., but I think that will turn itself around. I don't think I can judge Cobi only on the last [few] games in MLS. I've seen him over a number of years. We know what he can do at this level."

Not long after that comment was made, Jones turned in a spectacular performance in a 4-0 U.S. victory over South Africa, scoring two impressive left-footed goals and assisting on two others.

He is an automatic choice as a starter for the U.S. when qualifying play for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea begins next month. The U.S. opens with road games against Guatemala and Costa Rica July 16 and 23.

One of only two players who played every game in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups--his national team roommate, Dutch-based winger Earnie Stewart, is the other--Jones is certain to play in his third World Cup if the U.S. qualifies.

He doubts Arena would have any objection to his leaving MLS for a European team, especially if it meant playing at a higher level.

"I haven't really talked to Bruce about it," Jones said. "I think he knows that there is the opportunity to go overseas and that I'm defi . . . , uh, I'm looking to go overseas."

Jones laughed at his near slip of the tongue. After five years in MLS, he knows he has done his duty for the league and now wants to explore other options. He expects to play until he is 35, which means the five-year, $5-million contract he is seeking from MLS probably would be his last.

Again, is he worth the $1 million a year?

"I think it's fair, from what I've heard others are getting and from what I've done here and what I still plan to do here," Jones said.

Schmid realizes that Jones might be pricing himself out of the MLS market.

"That's always a possibility," he said. "I hope that doesn't happen. I hope that [MLS vice presidents] Ivan Gazidis and Todd Durbin and [Jones' agent] Cory Clemetson and [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber and Cobi can all sit down and hammer this thing out.

"If they're not able to, we have to deal with the reality of the situation and move forward, but I've got my fingers and toes crossed that they can do it.

"The one thing I'll say on Cobi's behalf, he's never been one to go in and say, 'Well, wait a second, I need to renegotiate.' Cobi has played out his contract. He hasn't asked to renegotiate in the middle of it. That's something I think the league respects as well and hopefully they'll be able to work out a compensation that's right.

"Certainly, we would like to see him re-signed and staying in L.A. I think he's a very important property in the league, I think he's a big asset to the league.

"He's for sure proven himself to be the most popular American player. Cobi is great with the fans and has gone out of his way there. L.A. has always been his home and it would be nice to see him finish his career here."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Keeping Up With Jones

WITH THE U.S. NATIONAL TEAM

*--*

Year G Min Goals Assists 1992 3 134 1 2 1993 30 1,824 2 5 1994 23 1,692 2 0 1995 12 758 1 4 1996 14 1,073 2 0 1997 14 850 0 1 1998 15 1,116 0 0 1999 8 642 0 0 2000 10 683 5 5 Total 129 8,772 13 17

*--*

WITH THE GALAXY

*--*

Year G Min Goals Assists 1996 34 2,896 7 4 1997 28 2,345 7 9 1998 28 2,496 19 14 1999 34 3,022 9 9 2000 15 1,419 4 3 Total 139 12,178 46 39

*--*

TOTALS IN THE U.S.*

*--*

Years G Min Goals Assists Nine 268 20,950 59 56

*--*

* Jones also played for the 1991 U.S. Pan American Games team, the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, one season for Coventry City in England's Premier League and briefly for Vasco da Gama in Brazil. Statistics from those games, as well as U.S. Open Cup and exhibition games, are not included.

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