US national team fans have enjoyed a love-hate relationship with Jermaine Jones since the German-American first donned a USMNT jersey late in 2010.
They love his physical presence on the field and Bundesliga pedigree. They hate his temper and propensity to pick up cards faster than an overeager blackjack player.
Over these past few days, I’ve decided the love outweighs the hate. By a long shot.
Jones was at his best against Scotland. True, the Scots were weak, but the Schalke man dominated the pitch in every facet while Landon Donovan dominated the score sheet. Jones showed calm on the ball, setting up two goals and adding one of his own while displaying the hard-nosed play we’ve come to expect from him. It was his best performance for the USMNT, and it’s hard to argue the quality of his contributions.
Against Brazil on Wednesday night, it was easy to argue about his quality. He was partially at fault for Brazil’s second goal off a set piece when he and Oguchi Onyewu lost their marks, and he was also back to his hacking self. The yellow card he picked up for a two-footed challenge on Neymar in the 57th minute with the US already down 3-1 marked his sixth booking in 17 caps.
But it also marked the moment when I decided I’m fully on board the Jones train.
Leading up to that clumsy challenge, Marcelo had just kicked Steve Cherundolo in the face. It was just another gag in a 90-minute stand-up routine of gamesmanship by the Brazilian defender, who had been baiting the US and the officials the entire match – leaving little wonder why Klinsmann was spouting off postgame about his team needing to be “nastier.”
WATCH: Klinsmann calls for more "nastiness"
Well, obviously, Jones decided it was time to send a message. Yes, if justice were truly just, he would have cleaned out Marcelo. But that’s not how messages always work. And circumstance doesn’t always allow for equanimity. So, instead, Jones “stepped on the toes,” as Klinsmann put it, of the young attacking starlet upon whom an entire nation will hang its World Cup hopes in two years.
It was a simple message, encapsulated beautifully by my colleague Matt Doyle, a.k.a. the Armchair Analyst: “If you hurt any of my guys, I will break your star's leg.”
I’m not condoning breaking anyone’s legs, but the attitude that elicited that comment has won me over. Despite what some of my fellow journos have written, I agree completely with Klinsmann. The USMNT plays too cleanly sometimes and simply expects the integrity of the game to win out. I’ve got news for you: That’s never going to happen.
“It’s not really in our character as Americans,” Donovan told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday night. “We try to play the game fair. We don’t really dive. We don’t do those kind of things."
I appreciate the sentiment and I love the attempt to maintain that integrity. But I also seem to recall Wayne Rooney saying something very similar before the 2010 World Cup. Last I checked, England haven’t won much of anything recently.
We can sit here and claim all day that a clean game is the right way to play and hope we’re right. But for better or worse, the darker arts are part of soccer, and when they’re carried out by the right (i.e. smart) players, they are an asset.
Plain and simple, the USMNT needs to start protecting itself. I’m not saying the entire side needs to start playing like Jones. Far from it. I still think he makes some horrendously stupid decisions and he won’t be the perfect asset to the side until he learns to rein in his emotions and time his actions better.
But sometimes you’ve got to send a message that you refuse to be kicked around. You do indeed need to be nastier.
And before you accuse me of condoning violence in the game – I’d never go that far – take another look at Jones’ tackle on Neymar. He got all ball. He knew exactly what he was doing.
The stuff Marcelo pulled is the kind of gamesmanship the US will face when they kick off World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF next week – not to mention during the actual tournament in Brazil in 2014.
How will the US respond? How will the Americans react when they’re nursing a narrow lead and players start literally punching them in the face, as the Salvadorans did late in their eventual draw with the US in Olympic qualifying in March?
For the first time as US manager, Klinsmann is about to get a major dose of what that’s like in this region. And I have to think there’s a reason he insists on calling Jones in – even when he’s suspended from club play, for heaven’s sake. On Wednesday night, perhaps for the first time, many of us saw exactly why.
Let’s hope Jones doesn’t make me eat those words.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.