Jermaine Jones just played his greatest game for the United States and has been rightly labeled the hero of the match. Clint Dempsey and John Brooks deserve the worship they are receiving for the simply awesome 2-1 win over Ghana. That's what happens to goal scorers. But Jones, in his usual fashion, did the dirty work underneath all of the glow, and he's now getting his just due as an American player. It's been a long, strange road to here, though.
Jones, 32, was 27 years old when he "decided" to play for the United States. Jones had played for Germany's U-21 team and longed to play for the senior team, but had only made appearances in a few reserve friendlies. A FIFA eligibility rule change in 2009 opened the door for Jones to switch to the United States, the country of his father's birth. Frustrated with his position in Germany, he made the switch.
Due to injury, Jones was not able to compete for a 2010 World Cup spot. It took a full year for Jones to step on the field for Bob Bradley. He finally did for a pair of friendlies in October 2010. His rise as a prominent defensive midfielder was quick and he started in the 2011 Gold Cup final against Mexico. But the United States defense was shredded in the match, conceding 4 goals.
Changes were made following the loss to El Tri. Bob Bradley was excused from his role after the long pursuit of Jurgen Klinsmann was finally settled.
Whether or not it was due to his German background, Jones immediately became cemented at DCM for Klinsmann and has been a consistent starter during his entire tenure.
But this rapid rise to the United States starting XI did not come without significant criticism from media and fans alike.
On the positive side, he was viewed as a solid ball defender with a terrific motor - a player who could physically impose his will on the competition. He brought much needed toughness to the defense. But there were many more issues than positives with his game.
His style of play was too blunt. He was not creative enough or even sure with the ball at his feet. He would lapse on defense occasionally. He made errant passes. He would wander too far up the field and get caught out of position. His most prominent statistic was almost always fouls and unnecessary yellow cards (check out his statistics with his current club side Bestikas - 10 games, 5 yellow cards).
He wasn't a good fit for his central midfield partner and team star Michael Bradley either. They didn't link well together. Jones wasn't able to provide the service that would unleash Bradley to be the playmaker he could be.
The back four was considered the weakest link and biggest risk to United States' World Cup success. Jones was not dependable enough to support a group that desperately needed the help.
Considered too much of a wild card, fans wanted another player who would rise to the occasion and supplant Jones. Hopefully Danny Williams would finally get it together. Maybe Mix Diskerud could play solid enough holding defense even though he wasn't ideally suited for that role. Kyle Beckerman lacked the forward thrust Jones offered, but at least he was a solid defensively. Ultimately Jones was looking like a default choice, and not an ideal one.
But Klinsmann was steadfast. Sure he tinkered, but there was never really any doubt that Jones was in his plans for the World Cup.
Then Klinsmann made a strange move. With just four friendlies remaining before Brazil, he switched formations from his favored 4-2-3-1 to the 4-4-2 diamond. The main benefit of this move was Bradley getting a more free role at the point of the diamond. But that left problems for the rest of the midfield. At first glance, this seemed to leave Jones at the base, almost as a fifth defender. Considering Jones' track record, this seemed like a particularly risky proposition.
Then, in the last friendly against Nigeria, Klinsmann made another move that showed his unyielding trust in Jones. He started Beckerman at the bottom of the diamond and released Jones to push further up as more of a shuttler. Here Jones would need to use his exceptional fitness to cover a lot of ground, and also get more involved in the playmaking.
Jones reprised his role as the left-sided midfielder in the Ghana match.
Following the opening tap, Jones was immediately high up the pitch, much further up than Americans were used to seeing him. And he rewarded Klinsmann's faith with an excellent pass to Dempsey which he took for the game's first score. Not a playmaker? The pass was nothing extraordinary, but also nothing USMNT fans had come to expect. He delivered the pass he needed to at the moment it had to happen.
After the United States shocked Ghana in the opening minute, Jones was able to sit back into the defensive role he was used to playing. But Ghana had game-planned to attack the side of Beasley and Jones. Given Beasley was considered the weakest link in the back four and Jones a little out of position, it was an obvious choice to attack. Ghana did so repeatedly. But Jones and Beasley proved worthy adversaries to the Ghana strategy. Ghana rattled off 21 shots during the match, but none of the 11 shots from Beasley and Jones' side were on target. The defensive effort left the American players exhausted.
In the final minute of the match, when Bradley sent an ill-advised cross into the box and gave the ball back to Ghana, Jones was in a full sprint to cover down the right side. He caused the final counterattack to retreat slightly and settle for a low probability lob into the box that failed. The United States had pulled off the dramatic win and Jones was as critical as any player to the outcome. Maybe the most critical.
Jones' last play was symbolic of his dogged hustle throughout the match. He has since been lauded for his play and there is no doubt of how badly the team needs him for the next match against Portugal. But it's been a long road for Jones to earn the confidence of the American faithful. And he's earned it in the nick of time.