[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] Knocked off the World Cup roster because of a broken leg, midfielder Jermaine Jones debuted for the USA with two impressive showings against Poland and Colombia.
Of seeing Jones in a U.S. jersey for the first time, I’m reminded of what the late Clive Charles said of his first sighting of another player who would one day represent his country:
“He just looked like a soccer player.”
Charles, the former University of Portland and U.S. Soccer coach who played professionally in England and the USA, was talking about Steve Cherundolo, whom he scouted as youth player in San Diego County and mentored for two years at Portland before Cherundolo headed off to Germany. More than a decade later, Cherundolo is Hannover’s captain and so popular in the city he’s jokingly called “The Mayor” by his U.S. teammates, since that office could be his for the taking.
Jones, born and raised in Germany, plays for rival Bundesliga club Schalke, and certainly doesn’t have that same political cachet in Gelsenkirchen, but he, too, looks more like a soccer player than many Americans, since they never seem to attain that symbiosis of balance, quickness, touch, and acumen far more common on opposing teams.
Whether it’s a pragmatic European team like Slovenia or Poland or Denmark, or a cagey, tricky squad of Colombians, or a posse of pulverizing powerhouses from Ghana, they often play with more positional sense, more comfort on the ball, and more poise. They have soccer players, not just athletic or talented guys playing soccer.
Jones brought a focused fluidity to his play against Poland and Colombia, two teams that brought completely different styles and characteristics and mentalities into their friendlies against the U.S. His closing speed is frightening, he is strong and tough enough to win tackles, he passes well with either foot, and he shrewdly clocks time and measures space all over the field. He’s supple and agile yet solidly built. He looks the part of a center mid with the engine to cover a lot of ground but is also smart enough to find the right spots as the ball moves and situations change.
Against Poland, his first-time arrow up the middle of the field that Jozy Altidore turned into the first goal was just one of several raking balls delivered precisely and at a good clip. Many Americans are slightly off-balance as they strike the ball and it often hops or tails or floats. Players and coaches talk of “pinging” the ball around, hitting it firmly and cleanly so it gets there, quick, to the right spot and at the right pace. With Jones, that’s the rule, not the exception.
Jones hunts the ball hungrily a la Chris Armas, to cite one example. Because of his anticipation and quickness he either got to passes before they reached the intended receiver so they could be intercepted, or arrived at about the same moment and at the proper angle to stuff the ensuing first touch.
Prior to the World Cup, his reputation was that of a skilled yet robust midfield destroyer prone to cautions. He did pick up a yellow in the Colombia game, perhaps due to fatigue, as he was one of the few players who went the full 90 in both games. Coach Bob Bradley said he’d use the two matches to evaluate players and he did just that; he made just one sub in the Poland game and with five changes against Colombia gave every one of the 20 players selected at least 45 minutes of action.
Unlike Poland, which came out to play and left space in midfield, Colombia clogged up the passing lanes, which stifled the U.S. attack until it reverted to a 4-4-2 formation in the second half. Jones had to change his game and though less prominent offensively against Colombia was no less influential.
Adding him to the midfield mix gives the U.S. yet another central player, albeit one with more range and agility than Michael Bradley, more composure than Ricardo Clark, more skill than Maurice Edu, and more steel than Sacha Kljestan.
The good news is he could play with any of these players in any combination, and can certainly complement the talents of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden, and whichever other attacking elements are selected. He can also increase competition for what is becoming a very crowded midfield pool.
The issue for Jones is not whether he’s better than any or all of these players. He is simply a different animal; gifted physically, honed by years of play in the Bundesliga, and driven by the disappointment of missing the 2010 World Cup after shifting his allegiances from Germany (he earned three German caps early in his career) to the USA. He turns 29 in November, and thus at the 2014 World Cup he’d be the same age as Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley and a year older than Dempsey.
For a national team that can be embarrassingly short on soccer players, this guy seems to be a keeper.