Flood of memories for Jones
With three tournaments to draw from, U.S. stalwart has plenty of recollections
Editor's note: Throughout the World Cup, soccer blogger Scott French will look back and offer memories of the event from those who have participated. First up is Cobi Jones.
Cobi Jones is one of the most beloved figures in American soccer, a speedy, dreadlocked winger who thrilled fans by beating defenders to score or assist goals, abilities that led to a national record 164 appearances, or caps, with the U.S. national team and trips to three World Cups.
Jones, who recently turned 40, played primarily a reserve role at the 1994 and 2002 World Cups and started all three U.S. games in 1998, when the Yanks finished last of 32 teams.
The former Westlake High School and UCLA standout also starred for the Los Angeles Galaxy from 1996 to 2007 (after stints with Coventry City in England and Vasco da Gama in Brazil), playing key roles in the club's MLS Cup title drives in 2002 and 2005.
"I'm proud to have represented my country three times," says Jones, one of Galaxy coach Bruce Arena's assistants. "I've seen it all: good ones, bad ones, ups and downs, all the way around. I've been through the process qualifying for the World Cup, which is an amazing, two-year process. It was an honor to represent the U.S. and to represent the city of Los Angeles and California.
"And it was a pleasant surprise. It's not something I thought I'd ever get to as a player. I never thought I'd play soccer past high school, so to go from that team to actually being most-capped and three World Cups is pretty special."
Jones, whose 164 caps have been topped by only five players, shares the U.S. mark for most World Cup appearances, 11, with defender Jeff Agoos. Galaxy forward Landon Donovan will tie that record by playing Wednesday against Algeria.
Jones made his first U.S. national team appearance after playing for the U-23 team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was part of U.S. Soccer's 18-month World Cup residency program in Mission Viejo before the 1994 World Cup, which was played in the United States.
"That was pretty interesting, it being the first World Cup in the U.S. There was so much attention on everything," Jones said. "Not until you go to other World Cups do you realize how much attention there is on the home team. Us having it for the first time ... it was crazy. There was something going on almost every day for the whole year leading up."
Mexico-based Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic, who had coached Mexico at the 1986 World Cup and Costa Rica at the 1990 World Cup, prepared a group of mostly younger players who weren't affiliated with a pro club.
"Mission Viejo did a great job preparing us," Jones said. "Bora was a great coach, and he had a great philosophy. He brought together a lot of players that weren't playing professionally, and to be able to bring that squad with some professionals and a lot of players that weren't 'play professional,' to form a team that could compete and make it through the first round against pretty much a favored nation to win it at the time, Colombia, that's something special."
The U.S. debuted with a 1-1 draw against Switzerland at the Pontiac Silverdome, with Jones' former Westlake High teammate Eric Wynalda scoring the American goal. Jones came on in the 81st minute for Earnie Stewart.
"The realization really hit when I went out on the field. It was in Detroit, where I was born, and seeing the stadium packed, having it indoors ... I remember the heat, how hot and humid it was," Jones said. "To actually go into the game, I was amazed I had that opportunity."
The U.S. reached the round of 16, where it was beaten by soon-to-be champion Brazil, 1-0, on the Fourth of July at Stanford University.
"We definitely surprised a lot of people," Jones said. "I don't think anyone outside U.S. Soccer thought we were going to get out of our bracket, and for us to go through and pull together as we did and get the results was just great."
Jones was one of the primary figures for the U.S. in 1998, when internal squabbling, questionable tactics and Coach Steve Sampson's controversial decision to drop captain John Harkes from the roster -- revealed last year to be product of an affair Wynalda and Sampson claim Harkes had with Wynalda's wife -- led to three losses, to Germany, Iraq and Yugoslavia, and quick elimination.
"It was a tough World Cup, but what people forget is the World Cup, it is about the soccer, but it's also about the experience." Jones said. "The soccer was obviously disappointing not to get through, to be a little unorganized, and a lot of the issues that surrounded the team before and during ... it wasn't good. But for me, just the experience of being part of the World Cup in Europe, for the first time for me, was special."
Jones stuck around after the U.S. was eliminated, taking in France.
"I guess you could say [I'm a Francophile] a little bit," Jones said. "I grew up taking French classes, that type of stuff, so to be there in Paris was something special. There's a lot of things people don't know about me. That's one, the Francophile thing, but also I love history. European history. And to be able to be in France, to go see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, all these things. ... I took some time and walked around and enjoyed the city, in the south of France and Paris. Let it soak in a little bit and try to be French for a few days."
France, led by Zinedine Zidane and with a roster of players with origins representing all of multicultural France, won the World Cup title while redefining what it meant to be French.
"It was amazing to see Zidane, everything he accomplished," Jones said. "[Emmanuel] Petit as well -- another player I thought was amazing. They did some amazing things, and to see the whole country behind them and just the craziness was unbelievable."
Jones came off the bench in four of the Americans' five games as they advanced to the quarterfinals in South Korea. The U.S. reached the knockout stage from a difficult group, starting with an upset of highly regarded Portugal and tying the South Koreans, who would reach the semifinals.
"When you're playing a different role, you prepare a little bit differently, but not so much, because it's a World Cup and you always want to be 100 percent ready and on your game," Jones said. "It was a great time in 2002. Being there, being with team, supporting the team ... and being successful -- that obviously makes it worthwhile. When you're successful in the Cup, that's all that matters. You could not even play a game, and you're cheering your team on."
The definitive game for the U.S. in 2002 was a victory over archrival Mexico in the round of 16.
"That was perfect, playing Mexico, because there's so much going on -- OK, who's the best in CONCACAF -- and then to meet up with our rival on the world's biggest stage, it was something special," Jones said. "It had been 10 years of that argument going on, and when people really look at the record, we have the better record against Mexico. So I was always saying, 'Look, we're the better team. We're in first place, and Mexico is sitting in second.'
"Then we got there, and we had the chance to prove it, and we walk out of there 2-0, celebrating, and they're sitting there going, 'What happened? Where I stand' World's biggest stage, biggest tournament, U.S. against Mexico, and U.S. comes out on top, 2-0."
Mexico played rough in that game -- many would call it dirty. Jones got the brunt of it, taking a boot to the side and a headbutt from Rafael Marquez, who was sent off for it.
"There's a lot of cheap shots. That's what happens when you get frustrated," Jones said. "And I'll say it to this [day]: They got frustrated that they were losing to the U.S. in the World Cup. As far as I'm concerned, you can headbutt, kick me, hit me, and I was going to get up and go forward. The last game of my career against Mexico was in the World Cup, and I stepped off as a winner.
"[The dirtiest play] was the foot in the side and the headbutt right after, and Marquez got red-carded. And also at the corner flag, where they tried to, basically, break my leg. Guy tried to step on my leg. Crazy. One thing I'm still looking for: I've heard the English [television] feed of that is the most amazing ever, because the English announcer asks, 'What did he ever do to Mexico that they're trying to go after him that bad?' That's great! I'm still looking for it."
The U.S. lost to Germany in the quarterfinals, falling, 1-0. The Americans might have reached the final four had Scottish referee Hugh Dallas awarded the U.S. a penalty kick after Torsten Frings' obvious hand ball on the goal line.
"That's where you hope the referee would be more on point," Jones said. "It was very frustrating, but who knows? What can you do about it."
The atmosphere in and around Seoul, where the U.S. was stationed, was as rewarding as it had been in France.
"The Koreans were a great fanbase," Jones said. "The 'Red Devils' out there, celebrating in the streets, hundreds of thousands of people. ... Every 15 minutes or so on TV, they would go to some town square that was just packed with fans. It was unbelievable.
"It was very different from Europe, just as the cultures are different. But it was just as enjoyable. I enjoyed the Asian experience a little more, because we did better. That always makes everything better."
Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.