Confirmation that LA Galaxy have failed in their quest to reach the MLS playoffs may arrive on Sunday. If not, such news will not have to wait much longer. Twenty-nine regular season games thus far have returned just 27 points. Galaxy are second bottom of the Western Conference, an embarrassing scenario for a club defined by celebrity and success, to the point where almost $4m per year is currently bestowed upon Giovani dos Santos as a base salary and five MLS Cups are housed at the StubHub Center, where David Beckham used to be their most celebrated playing star.
Galaxy’s latest capitulation took place here in Atlanta on Wednesday, where they were 4-0 – and a man – down by half-time. Atlanta United, such a success on and off the field in this, their debut MLS season, did not need to bother adding to the scoreline. Sigi Schmid, who has endured a fraught time since returning as Galaxy’s head coach in late July, bemoaned a “lack of focus” in a defense that was pulled apart by Atlanta’s menacing front four.
Included in that Galaxy back line was Ashley Cole. The 36-year-old was partly responsible for one of Atlanta’s goals as he followed ball rather than man but otherwise the veteran defender performed well. Cole’s distribution was exemplary, his bond with team-mates clear and fitness typical for a player built like the side of a £20 note. Monetary links have rather followed Cole around but he cannot be accused of using the MLS cynically as a pension top-up; his basic annual wage of $350,000 is not at all extravagant in relative terms.
If there were a hall of fame for left-backs, Cole would be an instant inductee. The Englishman possesses 107 caps, three Premier League winner’s medals – won with two different clubs – seven of the same from the FA Cup and one League Cup. Cole won the Champions League and Europa League, too, during a terrific spell at Chelsea. Earlier, Cole was part of Arsenal’s revered Invincibles side. All this after being brought up by a single mother in the East End of London.
Pieced together, Cole should be one of the most celebrated footballers in English history. Instead, he is isolated and forgotten. There should be deep sadness attached to that, regardless of circumstances and reasoning. Cole is portrayed by some as everything negative that modern football has spawned: financially and in terms of personal behavior. There were allegations of infidelity, brushes with the law and the accidental shooting of a work experience student with an air rifle. These are hardly matters for The Hague war crimes tribunal but, pieced together, shape opinion. That he is now a father and can admit the recklessness of his youth and lives a relatively quiet life in Hollywood does not widely register.
Crucially, Cole apparently harbors a grudge over the reasons why he is perceived so negatively. The fact he chose invisibility in Los Angeles after a short stint at Roma suggests he was perfectly happy to get away from it. There was no apparent interest at all in turning out for another English club despite the potential for a larger wage.
In the aftermath of that Champions League success, in Munich in 2012, Cole was requested for interview by English newspaper media as he left the Allianz Arena. “No. Fuck ’em,” was his reply. Such an approach meant an element of trepidation was natural as this reporter pondered a chat with Cole – an individual I have never met or written about – after the Atlanta defeat.
A rare interview with Sports Illustrated in June also raised doubts about how he would take an approach from a publication based in his homeland. In that interview, the defender said: “I’m never going to win. You can never win against [the press], especially in England. They’re so powerful. My friends, family, team-mates, they know who I am. It’s not good, the way they portray me. It’s not my personality. It’s not who I am.”
In a pretty desperate attempt to ingratiate himself with the subject, the Sports Illustrated writer gladly castigated an English press who will “strain, lunge and take another swipe at Ashley Cole”. The article added: “American sports culture, even in far more popular leagues, isn’t as venomous or destructive as what Cole experienced at home.” Instead, prime-time television debates surround the amount of air in an American football.
Hope was raised that Cole may be of a mind to share some of his LA experiences by the club’s media officer, who before a ball was kicked in Atlanta painted the picture of an amiable and relaxed professional. By the time post-match duties commenced – and clearly upon consultation with Cole – that stance had changed. “What precisely do you want to ask him about?” became: “He will be a long time in the shower,” in an unsubtle indication of the inevitable conclusion to an hour-long wait. “Ash has declined to speak.”
I waited to hear from the man himself, with Cole initially offering a broad smile as best wishes were passed on from a mutual friend in London. The formal refusal of a chat followed, even despite an offer to minimise time spent by asking some questions on the short walk to the team bus. “No.” A final plea, that the intention is to write a positive article about Cole’s time in the US, initiates the key reply: “What’s the point in being positive now? You didn’t do that years ago.” Cole didn’t break stride, made his annoyance perfectly plain by way of facial expression, and was off.
This was not very MLS, where media duties are almost entirely carried out with a smile. But certainly, they are carried out. The affair was far from the biggest shock of my career but it was among the most disappointing. I wanted to encounter a relaxed, content Cole, far removed from the individual widely depicted, and tell others that notions about his character were wrong.
The Galaxy media officer imparts his understanding that previous articles by this specific outlet are the cause of Cole’s stance. A quick check reveals nothing even remotely approaching extreme coverage and multitudes of praise towards that modern-day rarity of an English player who did fulfill his potential.
Cole is hardly a recluse. He utilizes social media to boost his profile and sponsorship value, as well he should. At base level, media exposure attached to the Premier League boom helped to catapult Cole and his contemporaries into a fresh financial stratosphere.
And yet, perhaps he has a point. Maybe if Cole feels his reputation was needlessly trashed by front-page news and sniping, he is well within his rights to refuse cooperation. Nobody can accuse him of not sticking to his guns just because home is on the other side of the Atlantic.
What has he to gain, really, from assisting us now, other than marginally boosting his reputation in the event – and this is unknown – that he has any plan for life in the front line of British football when he retires? Cole’s means of articulating his position on Wednesday should have been better, especially for one so seasoned, but heavy defeat could have added to his sense of unease.
With an overhaul at Galaxy almost certain at the conclusion of this dire season, Cole’s future is unclear. He has earned sufficient money and collected enough medals not to care at all about what happens next. For the rest of us, the reality of players without an ounce of Cole’s talent being loved far more than LA Galaxy’s No3 lingers. It is an absurd situation, if one Cole himself has no apparent interest in altering.