MANAUS, Brazil – Jermaine Jones has been the villain. He’s been the goat. Now, he’s arguably the United States’ best player at the 2014 World Cup.
On a night when Jurgen Klinsmann needed everything and more from the 32-year-old to help stifle Cristiano Ronaldo and a desperate Portugal side, Jones somehow delivered more than his head coach could have ever hoped for in a 2-2 draw that left the Americans a result (or a little luck) away from the knockout stage.
And for all his tireless work in the midfield, it was a moment of offensive brilliance that Jones will be remembered for long after the US leave the banks of the Amazon. Down 1-0 in the 64th minute, he latched onto a loose ball at the top of the box then thundered a right-footed shot that curled inside the far post as Portugal goalkeeper Beto watched helplessly, feet rooted to the turf.
Tie game. Momentum shift. Perhaps even goal of the tournament so far.
“At halftime, everybody told me to try to shoot,” Jones told reporters after the game. “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 [DaMarcus Beasley] from behind, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot,’ so I shot and I am happy that it goes in.”
It was only the third goal in 44 appearances for the Frankfurt-born son of an American serviceman, but it was certainly the biggest, a moment of pure brilliance on the sport’s biggest stage and a reminder of how important Jones truly is to this US squad.
At times, his role has been questioned by fans and media alike, the main beef a lack of defensive discipline as a deep-lying midfielder, a tendency to seek out the ball and push forward that sometimes creating openings for opponents to exploit.
But with Kyle Beckerman behind him plugging those holes and anchoring the US midfield, Jones has been able to focus on what he does best in Brazil: Close down the ball and win it before sparking attacks with his range of passing and strength in possession.
But after nearly tearing a hole in the net on Sunday, perhaps he should focus a little more on finishing off those moves as well.
“I keep telling him, ‘Keep shooting. Keep shooting,’ because he has a good shot,” Beckerman told reporters. “He got a good one off against Ghana. He got a couple good ones today. I was glad to see him finally get a goal. He took the goal great.
"He does all the little things, he’s covering a ton of ground, he’s tackling, he’s making good passes. He’s an all-around midfielder.”
And that’s exactly what the US needed from Jones and the rest of the American midfield on a muggy night here in the Amazon. The only negative? A soft yellow card that may set him up for suspension should the US advance to the knockout round.
Apart from that, he didn’t put a foot wrong. Defensively, Jones was tireless despite the conditions. He even switched from the left to the right side to help combat Ronaldo, a task that didn’t dull his contributions going forward.
“We harped over and over and over again in training,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters. “Michael [Bradley], Kyle and Jermaine – they had to be the engine, they had to double up and to go forward in the attack and double up on the flanks and defend.
"I couldn’t do those jobs, but my hat goes off to them tonight.”