Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — It would have been hard to label Jermaine Jones as a fan favorite among U.S. Men’s National Team supporters prior to the World Cup, but it isn’t anymore. Not after he delivered three gritty and high-level performances that helped the U.S. advance from a tough Group G and into the Round of 16.
Playing in an unfamiliar left midfield position, Jones has flourished thus far in Brazil and taken his oft-criticized game to another level. He has combined his power and toughness with skill and savvy to arguably be the U.S.’s best player through the three difficult group games.
The veteran hasn’t only led by example on the field with his nonstop running and physicality, but also off of it. Jones has done more media appearances than any other U.S. player, being made available to reporters almost every other day. It’s a conscious effort on his part to fully immerse himself in what will likely be the only World Cup of his career and provide veteran leadership to the team.
Still, it has been Jones’ stellar play that has drawn the admiration of supporters and rightfully so.
“Jermaine is who he is,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “He’s a warrior and he showed that again (against Germany) and he’s so important to us and to the entire team because he has this never-die attitude and he’s playing a very good tournament so far. Hopefully, he steps it up another notch now in Round of 16.”
Klinsmann is partly responsible for Jones’ World Cup success as the U.S. manager has found a role that is well-suited for the 32-year-old midfielder. Jones is no longer playing the No. 8 role where he struggled to find consistency on the international level and is now serving as a left midfielder, a position that allows him to put in the hard defensive work that he is good at while also allowing him the tactical freedom to roam forward and join in the attack.
Jones has been criticized in the past for not being tactically disciplined enough to sit back and serve strictly as a defensive midfielder. But his willingness to do whatever it takes to thrive at this World Cup has allowed him to show well in a couple of send-off series friendlies. The Americans deployed a diamond midfield before Klinsmann unconventionally used Jones in a left midfield role in the final pre-World Cup match vs. Nigeria.
“He’s a player with a big character, with a big ego and those kinds of players often times don’t want to do things for the team and I think he’s done brilliant in terms of playing on the left wing, which isn’t anything that’s natural for him,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “He’s doing a great job tracking back. There were times (against Germany) where I was scratching my head when he was playing like a center forward, but it was working, Clint (Dempsey) was pulling out, getting more of the ball and it was just working.
“He’s one of the tough guys. He gets in there and he grinds and he’s been fantastic for us.”
Howard is usually spot on with his analysis, but even that might have been an understatement. Jones has arguably been the U.S.’s best player in each of its three group stage matches and has an assist plus a spectacular goal to go along with all the jarring tackles he has delivered.
His equalizing tally against Portugal was especially impressive. With the U.S. trailing and in need of a lift, the hard-nosed midfielder hit a perfect mid-level strike from about 21 yards out that swerved just enough to freeze goalkeeper Bento before nestling into the corner of the net.
Jones celebrated the goal with raw emotion. It was a memorable moment that spurred the U.S. on and also silenced the critics that in the past have labeled him as a mercenary who doesn’t care all that much about his international side.
If that play and his recent U.S.-themed tattoo on his left knee weren’t enough to show that Jones does care about the Americans’ cause, him playing through a broken nose likely was. Jones was battered on a few occasions in this past Thursday’s group finale defeat to Germany, but he did not seem to mind it one bit afterwards.
After all, he had helped the U.S. do what few observers thought it could by reaching the Round of 16.
“This group is a young group and before the World Cup a lot of people were talking why (Klinsmann) take this guy, why he don’t take this guy,” Jones said. “This team is always focused and always look forward and we showed the people. I think the coach make the right decisions, so nobody can talk anymore.”
They still might, but they could also talk about how well Jones is playing in the tournament of his career.