The time of decision is nigh for U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he prepares for the next edition of USA-Mexico to kick off his second Hexagonal campaign.
Mexico head coach Juan Carlos Osorio has already named his squad, the game in Columbus is a sellout, and promo spots are running on Univision, on Fox during the World Series and Fox Sports 1, which during its MLS playoff coverage on Sunday will carry the official roster announcement.
Since taking over the squad more than five years ago, the former German international has emphasized the importance of fierce competition for roster spots and playing time. He decries the concept of guaranteed selection, though of course there are certainly players in that category. The consistent recalls of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore infuriate a contingent of U.S. fans, and so have the selections of over-30s Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski, whose advanced ages seemingly eliminate them for consideration if the ultimate goal is a spot on the 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup.
Yet such outrage probably won’t be heard if Klinsmann chooses Colorado midfielder Jermaine Jones, who is an amazing physical specimen but is 35 and has just returned from nearly four months on the shelf with a knee injury. On Sunday, the Rapids play the first game of a conference semifinals quadruple header; the roster announcement comes later in the day, so theoretically Klinsmann could watch Jones play and make a very late adjustment based on what the coach observes.In late August, after Jones sat out eight straight MLS games, Klinsmann called him into a national team camp to be evaluated. That has happened a few other times during Klinsmann’s tenure, but considering the upcoming opponents were St. Vincent & The Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago, the move seemed a case of ‘What’s the point?"
The point is that the USA is well-stocked with central midfielders but not dominant figures like Jones. He is still a powerful force in games, during training sessions and in the locker room. Just the sight of him going through a fitness evaluation, as he did in Jacksonville two months ago, is a sharp reminder that every time the national team gets together -- for a friendly, for a January camp, for a qualifier -- there’s work to be done and a level of commitment that exceeds what is needed at club level.
Jones played like a man possessed last June at the Copa America Centenario, which is to say he brought his normal levels of guile, touch and intensity. He missed the semifinal against Argentina because of a red card issued to him in the prior match with Ecuador; it’s doubtful the Americans could have beaten Argentina with Jones in the lineup, but it’s also unlikely the loss would have been so one-sided.
Yes, Jones can be a powder keg ready to explode. But he gives the team what Klinsmann believes it needs, the ultimate big-game persona. He's as much a factor off the field as on it.
At some point -- maybe during the 19 months leading up to the next World Cup -- Jones will succumb to inevitable physical deterioration and can no longer stand the strain and stresses of international competition. But for a rough start to the Hexagonal in Columbus and Costa Rica, he figures in the plans of Klinsmann, who has yet to find a replacement for his physical prowess and spiritual strength. Klinsmann has many younger players he wants to move forward and with good results in the first two games he has more leeway as the Hex unfolds.
Jones' presence may not be enough to overcome the Galaxy Sunday but he’s still essential when the USA takes on the world.