SAO PAULO – As Jermaine Jones goes, so goes the US national team’s dreams at the World Cup.
That not might exactly be music to the ears of the critics of the hard-charging, no-nonsense German-American midfielder, but expect it to prove true once the US take the field against Ghana on Monday in Natal (6 pm ET, ESPN).
The 32-year-old Jones is one of the team’s most influential players and one of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s automatic starters, there’s little question there. While Klinsmann has scolded some his stars or shifted them to the bench during his tenure – think Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey or even a somewhat stunned Michael Bradley circa late 2011 – Jones has been left unscathed, finding his way onto the field whenever he’s been ready and able.
But with versatile defender Geoff Cameron now nearly a lock at center back and plucky handyman Fabian Johnson the odds-on choice at right back, one of the few mysteries left to solve is where Jones actually fits best. He’ll start for sure, but is there a spot where he can thrive and dispel the detractors who figure him for a reckless wrecking ball, and nothing more?
Since making his debut under former head coach Bob Bradley in 2010, Jones spent the better part of three years roaming the central midfield with Michael Bradley in the US’ 4-2-3-1 formation. Although the pairing certainly provided a European pedigree and professionalism in the middle of the Americans’ lineup, there was rarely a clear picture on which one was supposed to get forward and support the playmaker Dempsey, and which one should stay home to help an often times fledgling back line.
Jones’ critics had a field day watching them try to sort it out. Bradley was figured for the more cerebral player, the better passer and the better playmaker on the front foot, while Jones appeared better served in a traditional holding midfielder role where he could play up his physicality and play smash and grab with opposing attacking midfielders.
Jones didn’t quite see it that way then, and he still doesn’t. He’s an elder statesman in the American camp with some understandable reluctance to be limited to any role, especially when he’s shown as much prowess in Europe as any other player on the US roster.
In the process, however, he’s taken his lumps simply for playing the way he wants to play. There’s a healthy population of Bradley devotees who promptly lose their nerve every time Jones goes marauding on the right side of the attacking central midfield, creating a crowded house that some think takes the US team’s best player out of the mix.
In the World Cup preview of the soccer magazine Howler, for example, the criticism went like this: “Over the past three years, [Jones] has been the only midfielder in CONCACAF to consistency neutralize Michael Bradley.”
Asked this week at the US team’s camp what he thought of those who scolded him for sometimes pushing up front too much, Jones took the criticism in stride.
“It’s right. I can play that position No. 6,” he said, “but I’m a guy who likes to play in front, too.”
He also insisted his relationship with Bradley has steadily improved since they played for the first time together in a friendly against Poland in October 2010, regardless of any perceived conflicts in the battle over who runs the midfield.
“Sometimes we say he is a brother from another mother,” Jones said with a laugh. “We have a good relationship, and I was close to his dad, too. We understand each other, and if someone has a problem we can talk it over. It’s a good friendship.”
Jones could face changes, however, when the team suits up against Ghana. When Klinsmann rolled out a somewhat surprising 4-4-2 diamond formation for the US team’s World Cup prep match against Azerbaijan last month, Jones locked in as a stay-at-home holding midfielder while Bradley roamed ahead, and then Klinsmann started the pair the same way a week later in a win over Turkey.
In the team’s last tuneup against Nigeria on June 3, Jones shifted again. This time he was off to a rare spot at left midfielder while Kyle Beckerman slipped into the holding midfielder role, and another win followed. Jones was solid in each of the first two games and surprisingly effective in his new role against Nigeria, which could open up a fresh possibility for Klinsmann when the opener rolls around on Monday.
“Obviously Jermaine’s not an out-and-out winger, but within the formation, with him tilted to the side, it seemed to work,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “It’s less about where [Jones and Bradley] start and kind of more about how the game flows and deal with their defensive responsibilities.”
If Jones plays that left-side role against Ghana, it would likely keep Beckerman in the holding spot and push natural winger Graham Zusi to the bench as it did against Nigeria, and Jones said he enjoyed playing that role in a rare shift last week.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to put me [at holding midfielder] alone,” Jones said. “But it’s nice that the coach will maybe try it with Kyle and put me on the left side so I can be more in front. We’ll see what happens. When you play more left or up front, Kyle is the guy who stays to cover your back. It’s easier to go up front.”
Regardless of the solution, don’t expect to see a starting lineup Monday without Jones somewhere in the fold, wherever it may be.
“You talk about our most talented players, [Jones and Bradley] are two of them,” Howard said. “You have to get them on the field and find how each one fits.”