There were times Cobi Jones didn't think Major League Soccer would survive its first few years, let alone a quarter-century.
When MLS contracted by two teams in 2002, Jones and his fellow players wondered if the fledgling domestic league was in trouble.
They shouldn't have worried. MLS is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, commemorating it Wednesday with the release of the MLS 25 Greatest. Among the former players on the list are Jones, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Clint Dempsey and Robbie Keane.
“There were ups and downs within the league over the time, but to see where it is now as compared to where it was 25 years ago, it’s drastic changes, and I don’t think I could have even dreamed that it would have been this momentous, this special, and this much growth over that 25 years,” said Jones, who was one of the league’s original players, spending his entire 11-year career with the LA Galaxy.
A panel of nearly 200 people tied to the league was surveyed to select the players who “achieved the most on the field, drove the narrative off the field, and helped lay the foundation and set the course for MLS’s next 25 years.”
Jones was a natural fit.
He played in the Premier League with Coventry City and in Brazil before returning to the United States to help launch MLS in 1996. He also made a record 164 appearances for the U.S. national team and played in three World Cups.
His favorite MLS moment is winning that first league title in 2002. The Galaxy would go on to win a league-record five championships.
“It was a struggle for us at the Galaxy to go into the final a few times before and losing, but to finally have that monkey off the back and win the championship against the New England Revolution, at New England in front of their home crowd, that was something special," Jones said. "To get that first championship, to start that run, that first-of-five run that everyone was talking about over the past few years. I think that championship -- the Galaxy had been known as a quality club and one of the leaders -- but that first championship really solidified it."
Jones said the difference between now and when he started is the league's depth, with quality players from abroad and the academies streaming into MLS.
“In the early days, (teams had) like 11 quality players and then all of a sudden there was a significant drop off. I think now you see that there’s 11 quality players and then you go beyond and there’s other quality players as well," he said. "So that’s the big difference that I see over the years. And it’s something that you need to grow as a league where the league gets better and better because everybody gets pushed from those that are behind.”
The league's anniversary came at a chaotic time. MLS suspended the season because of the coronavirus in March after teams had played just two games. The league returned with the MLS is Back tournament in a bubble in Florida this summer before a return to local markets for an abbreviated season.
The season will culminate Saturday night with the MLS Cup final between the Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders.
“Now for 25 seasons, MLS has been a story about resilience and innovation and a commitment and our players, our owners, our staffs and our fans. And these attributes were demonstrated more than ever this year,” Commissioner Don Garber said in his State of the League address. “And I want to remind everybody, and reflect how far we’ve come since our founding 25 years ago to become a top flight professional soccer league in the world.”
Among the current players honored on the list are San Jose's Chris Wondowloski, the league's all-time leading scorer with 166 goals, Portland's Diego Valeri, Atlanta's Josef Martinez and LAFC's Bradley Wright-Phillips.
“It’s a huge achievement because there are so many amazing players, that are not on the list, but there are so many amazing players in all these 25 years, and the recent part of the league, too,” said Valeri, who came to the Timbers in 2013 from his native Argentina and was named league MVP in 2017. “It’s evolving a lot, the league, and many players from many different parts of the world are being part of the league, so this is just a huge, huge honor for me.”
The 25 Greatest, in alphabetical order, are: Jeff Agoos, Kyle Beckerman, David Beckham, Carlos Bocanegra, Dwayne De Rosario, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Marco Etcheverry, Robin Fraser, Sebastian Giovinco, Kevin Hartman, Cobi Jones, Robbie Keane, Chad Marshall, Josef Martinez, Tony Meola, Jaime Moreno, Eddie Pope, Preki, Steve Ralston, Nick Rimando, Carlos Valderrama, Diego Valeri, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips.
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