By Ridge Mahoney
That Jermaine Jones will carry a caution into the USA’s final group game against Germany Thursday isn’t a surprise, yet it’s nothing short of shocking to consider he’ll be the only player on both teams so shackled.
Incredibly, the Germans have played two games without incurring a single yellow card, and the caution Jones picked up against Portugal Sunday was the first meted out to a U.S. player. This could produce a very tactical game on Thursday, with both teams knowing a tie is sufficient to book a place in the next round and with nearly all of the players free to commit a cautionable offense to snuff a counterattack without incurring an automatic suspension.
The caution Jones received broke an 11-game streak without a caution, which should put to rest once and for all the stigma that he’s a wild, reckless player prone to late tackles and rash challenges. He’s intense, he’s tough, and he will gladly use his strength when the need arises, but he’s a good soccer player, and like most midfielders honed in the harsh, competitive environment of the Bundesliga, he can occasionally conjure up a memorable moments such as his superb right-footed missile that tied the Portugal game at 1-1 in the 64th minute.
“At halftime everybody told me to try to shoot,” he said of his third USA goal. “When I got the ball I tried to get in on my left foot. I think Nani was in front of me. I tried to get the ball in that corner. I only heard ‘Beas’ [DaMarcus Beasley] from behind, ‘shoot, shoot, shoot,’ so I shot and I am happy that it goes in.”
His performances in the warm-up games and the first two World Cup matches should also quash any lingering suspicion that he’s not committed to the U.S. cause, and is driven by opportunism more than patriotism. The native of Frankfurt knows what he feels when he hears the Star-Spangled Banner, and who knows how conflicting his emotions will be when the German national anthem is played at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife on Thursday, yet if his play hasn’t won over the skeptics in the past month, probably nothing will.
“At the end of the day, we’re upset that we didn’t get the three points,” he said after the Portugal game, displaying at least a moderate grasp of soccer clichés in English. “Things happen. So we have to go against Germany.”
Against Ghana, he patrolled mostly the right side and his heat map covers nearly entire portion of that flank from penalty area to penalty area. Against Portugal, he played mostly in the left-central channel and while he didn’t range as far forward and back as he did against Ghana, he did score the goal that got the Americans back on track. He covered an even 10,000 meters against Portugal, and 11,203 meters in the Ghana game. As one would expect, both figures are in the top five amongst the U.S. players and in those two games he’s committed five fouls.
Seven seasons (2007-14) with Schalke in the harsh, competitive German Bundesliga etched a hard-man reputation – he often ranked among the league leaders in cautions and fouls – and during 2012 he topped the U.S. team with seven cautions in 12 games. Yet in 2013, in the same number of games, he was cautioned only once.
A few of those U.S. cautions were reckless attempts to rectify his own errors -- a careless touch, a wayward pass -- but he also at times charged about to snuff out fires not of his creation. His reduced caution count stems from greater comfort and increased confidence playing for the USA. Both he and Kyle Beckerman have recently benefited from being paired together in midfield, regardless of formation or opposition, and he’s grown into one of the team’s most influential players and strongest personalities.
There are five-German based players on the U.S. World Cup squad of 23 and he says they are always striving to increase their integration within the group.
“We talk German sometimes but we have respect for the guys who don’t talk German,” he said during the team’s training camp in Northern California last month. “So obviously if we see somebody there who doesn’t understand the German language, we talk English.
At the camp, he also he spoke highly of MLS, tamping down talk of friction between players based in Europe and those in the domestic league, which was fueled in part by Klinsmann’s fluctuating stances on the topic. Jones certainly could be spouting the company line, but he’s also quite correct to emphasize that a team, any team, unable to bond for whatever reason won’t get far in a World Cup.
“You can see with [Michael] Bradley back from Europe and Clint [Dempsey] back from Europe,” he said of an upward trend in MLS talent. “The football will go and going and yeah, the national team we already show in a lot of games we can hurt some big countries and make some problems for them. I think this is the kind of stuff what makes a team.”
He’s certainly made of the stuff essential in a team player and he’ll get the ultimate opportunity to prove that again Thursday against another big country, one he knows very, very well.