How Cobi Jones Raised the Stakes for US Soccer

American soccer was once seen as something of a joke across the Atlantic.

Whilst South American soccer players are amongst the best in the world, most flock to Europe for their domestic action. The home of soccer is seen as England, and until the early nineties, they didn’t look favorably on our game. This comes despite the USMNT beating a star-studded England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup; such was the English arrogance that some papers reported it as 10-1 to England, certain the telex machine had delivered a misprint.

That began to change when John Harkes, the star of the USMNT’s 1990 World Cup bid, moved to Sheffield Wednesday, but there was still a degree of skepticism. After all, any player could have one good tournament, be dealt one good hand that they play well, and ride for the rest of their career. However, when the USMNT appeared in the 1994 World Cup, albeit without having to qualify, thoughts began to change.

Perhaps it was because the USMNT didn’t get a point in Italy but picked up an early win on home soil. Maybe it was because England weren’t sitting at that table; they failed to qualify, which meant English fans watched as impartial observers. Those fans saw a USMNT looking in good form with an iconic player set to change perceptions within the Premier League. That player was Cobi Jones.

Born in Detroit, Jones grew up in Southern California and played his soccer for UCLA Bruins heading into the tournament. Jones didn’t score a goal, but he came on in all the group stages matches and stood out. He had flair, a great touch, and he was young. Until this point, English sides had seen the US as a place for retiring stars to go and earn a final payday, meandering around the pitch like a show pony. US players were not exciting young stars.

Jones was. He started the last 16 game against Brazil, and despite going down 1-0 to the eventual winners, there was a certain amount of pride in the performance. He was invited to train with German side Koln before being signed by Coventry City in the Premier League. It was the first time a promising young US player, not an established star, had been snatched up by a club in Europe’s best league.

Jones didn’t particularly succeed in England; he scored twice before moving to Brazil, before returning to play out his career with LA Galaxy. He played in the 1998 World Cup and again in 2002, making him a US legend. Galaxy retired his number 13 jersey, the first MLS club to make such a gesture when he retired.

After leaving the game, Jones has had several interests. He has penned articles on US soccer for the Players Tribune and shown an interest in poker. He was pictured entering the 4th Annual ‘Get Lucky for Lupus’ Celebrity Poker Tournament with stars such as WWE wrestler The Miz. Jones understood how to win at poker, just as he knew how to win on the soccer field, and he certainly wasn’t afraid to be dealt in a celebrity game, maximizing his status as a key USMNT figure. He recently went all-in on US soccer, announcing his candidacy for US Soccer Vice President. He is as influential and important today as ever before; he’s played the long game successfully, without a doubt.

His move to England alerted teams to the potential of young players for the US and since then, there has been no fear signing the likes of Christian Pulisic, the first player from the US to win a Champions League. Nowadays, signing a player from the US is not a gamble; they’re a solid bet to develop and do well. All of that started with the dreadlocked, pint-sized, poker-loving Cobi Jones.