I don't think there's much doubt that Jermaine Jones is still one of the most individually talented players in the USMNT player pool. His athleticism has always been his calling card, and it's still mostly there. He is a blur, a snarling and nasty and committed two-way expression of pure id, a shin-seeking destroyer who plays the game with his engine running in the red. Jones, at a full gallop, can shrink the entire field – his ability to just chew up ground feels like it gives his opponents about 25 percent less room to play with. When he's locked in he forces every opponent to meet his intensity level, and if they can't, they're going to be holding on for dear life.
Go rewatch the first 25 minutes of Colorado's second-leg playoff loss to Seattle last year, a period of time in which Jones ran through and past and around and over the Sounders pretty much all by himself. I've watched Ozzie Alonso play soccer for a decade and that's the only time I've ever seen him look overwhelmed.
Jones could occasionally bring this to bear on the international level as well. Watch minutes 45-through-75 of the 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss to Mexico. He was breathtaking.
That athleticism has often overshadowed his individual skill, which is not insignificant. You remember the goal vs. Portugal, of course. You can also probably conjure up images of big, diagonal switches or the occasional, well-weighted ball up the line and into a winger's run, a la Tuesday night at Panama. Jones has some stuff in his bag.
And those two things – his athleticism and his skill – have continually overshadowed the fact that the US tend to play better when Jones, who is now 35, is a spectator. Or, at the very least, is forced into a support/tertiary role.
I spoke about Jones the individualist above because he plays soccer with a Galt-ian sense of self. His bursts of energy against Seattle and Mexico were as unsustainable as they were breathtaking, and once he'd maxed out his reserves, his teammates were forced to compensate for his no-less-unpredictable forays away from positional responsibility and his no less risky attempts at spreading the field with the ball. Instead of focusing on their own shape or gameplan, or adjusting to the attacks of the opposition, the constant calculation of his own teammates has been "How do we adjust to Jermaine?" Instead of working together, they were working for him.
The Jones of earlier days could run himself out of position then usually run himself back into the play, but even so it's been a bad, game-tilting trade for the US for most of this decade. Exchanging tactical framework for hero-ball isn't a good blueprint.
And at Panama on Tuesday, it started to become apparent that Jones isn't about to quit playing hero ball even as his athleticism ticks downward and his skill slowly deserts him.
Jermaine Jones recovered possession one time for the U.S. last night. In comparison, Nagbe did six times and Pulsic five. Oof.— Rob Usry (@RobUsry) March 29, 2017
If it was just one bad game, one "off" performance from the veteran, fair enough. But it's not, and nobody should ignore the knock-on effect that his presence has on the rest of the US team.
That's what I've been seeing for the last seven years. Because Jones is such an individualist in his movement the US is forced into the binary of playing to him or away from him whenever he's out on the field, which bogs down the attack and limits useful possession. Doing otherwise, trying to build slowly and patiently through central midfield, is a non-starter because 1) Jones is rarely in the spots you'd expect a central midfielder to operate in, 2) he doesn't hit many passes designed to keep possession, and 3) trying to play that way when one central midfielder is out of position defensively is suicide by counterattack.
There's a strong case to be made for a reduced role for Jones under Bruce Arena. I think, in the process, we'll see the US move away from the flat 4-4-2 they tried against Panama and toward a 4-3-1-2 with Christian Pulisic as the "1" and Michael Bradley – for now – in the middle of the "3" line as the defensive midfielder.
Who are the shuttlers, the wide midfielders on the "3" line? Darlington Nagbe for one, and Alejandro Bedoya for another. Kellyn Acosta can certainly play that role, and I thought it was symbolic when he replaced Jones with 15 minutes left against Los Canaleros. A healthy Sebastian Lletget has a spot there as well, as should Danny Williams even though he's really more of a No. 6. Fabian Johnson is more of a true wide player who'd bring a different look to the spot. Alfredo Morales plays a similar role in the Bundesliga, and Cristian Roldan is a guy that Arena's mentioned as a possible Gold Cup call-up. Lynden Gooch might end up playing as more of a No. 8.
It's too early for the Tyler Adams hype train, even though he was born for this role. But if he plays well at the U-20 World Cup in May you'll definitely hear his name mentioned, and it won't be inappropriate.
Regardless, in years past the argument could've been made that the US were at a point, talent-wise, where Jones was essential. I'll make the argument that he's become detrimental, and the time has come for a change.