Ashley Cole has no firm plans beyond 4 o’clock Sunday afternoon. That’s about the time the Galaxy’s final regular-season game with the Houston Dynamo will end.
If the Galaxy win, they’re on to the MLS playoffs.
If they don’t, their season is over, and perhaps Cole’s brilliant career.
Cole’s contract with Major League Soccer ends this winter and he said he’s not sure what he’ll do after that. He’s open to returning to the Galaxy but said earlier this season he would wait for the team to invite him back.
He’s still waiting.
“Not made my mind up 100%,” he said of his future. “I’m not going to rush into it.”
Cole will turn 38 in December, and in soccer every year on the wrong side of 35 can hang like an anvil from a player’s neck. He’s had a splendid season, tying for the team lead in starts at 29 and standing second in minutes played, just two behind Ola Kamara. Cole also broke the franchise record for assists for a defender, with nine this season.
It was clearly the best of his three seasons in MLS, one that tested his endurance and versatility as a wing back under former coach Sigi Schmid as well as his wisdom and leadership as the team’s captain.
That success will only make his decision harder.
“I still love the game,” he said. “I still love playing it.
“You know, when you retire, that’s a long time retired. So I’m leaving every option open.”
One option is to find another club willing to take on an experienced defender and leader who feels he has something left to give. Another is to return to London, where Chelsea, the club he helped to win two European titles, has offered him a coaching job with its youth teams.
Cole, who also wants to spend time with his two young children, won’t say which way he’s leaning but he gave a clue when he flew relatives, including his mother Sue, to Los Angeles for Sunday’s game.
“Just in case it’s the end,” he said.
If it is, Cole will walk away as one of the most accomplished left backs of his generation.
He played in three World Cups and two European Championships, retiring from the national team as the most-capped fullback in English history. On the club level, he played for powerhouses Arsenal, Chelsea and Roma, winning three Premier League titles as well as Champions and Europa league crowns and seven FA Cups, more than any player in history.
It’s an unparalleled resume yet Cole has been largely unappreciated in MLS, overshadowed on his own team by the likes of Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Gio dos Santos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. So when the league released a list of its top-25 bestselling jerseys last week, Cole’s No. 3 shirt wasn’t on it.
Those who train and play with him every day understand his value.
“He’s not the loudest guy in the locker room, but when he talks, you definitely listen,” said defender Dave Romney. “He’s one of the best pros I’ve been around. He’s one of the best guys I’ve been around.
“He’s just the consummate captain you want.”
Romney and center back Daniel Steres, golfing partners of Cole’s, said they frequently pick his brain for advice. But they had to get over their awe of him first.
“At first it was, I don’t want to say a shocker, but it was ‘OK, that’s him.’ You’ve only seen him from afar,” Steres said of Cole’s first MLS season in 2016. “Once you get to know him, he’s a really good guy.
“He’s got a wealth of knowledge so I’m listening to everything I can from him.”
Though Cole has experienced mostly success on the field, he’s known struggle off it. His father abandoned the family when Cole was a boy, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother Matthew in a two-bedroom flat in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s poorest boroughs.
His mother worked multiple jobs to support the family, ferrying Ashley from school to training and home again between work and while on lunch breaks.
“She did a fine job. She’s been everything,” said Cole, who took his mother’s family name rather than that of his father.
It was during one of those training sessions, when Cole was a 15-year-old striker, that his career took a fortunate turn. A teammate was injured and Cole was moved to left back, speeding his rise to the national team at a position he would dominate for more than a decade in England.
Cole later married and divorced pop singer Cheryl Tweedy, a drama that became fodder for the Fleet Street tabloids. He also had a couple of minor scrapes with the police and, during the middle of his eight-season stay with Chelsea, accidentally shot an intern with an air rifle at training camp.
Soccer has been his salvation, allowing him to escape East London and travel the world while earning millions. He met his girlfriend, model Sharon Canu, in Italy and the couple’s two children were born in Italy and the U.S., enriching the family but complicating the passport process.
“I can picture it now, where I grew and me playing in the cage where I used to play,” he said. “To see what I’ve achieved and where I’ve been; the countries I’ve seen, tournaments I’ve played in, players I’ve played against, it’s incredible.”
And it’s clear Cole doesn’t want it to end. At least not yet.
He’s made the playoffs once in three MLS seasons but has keyed a late-season run this fall, joining Romney and Steres on a defense that has surrendered only two goals in its last four games, moving the Galaxy to the threshold of another postseason berth. But they need a win Sunday to cross over.
By 4 o’clock Cole will know if they made it or if he has a decision to make. Either way he says he’ll be at peace with the result.