If Jermaine Jones isn’t the most polarizing player on the U.S. squad, he’s got to be pretty close.
Because for a large contingent of national team observers, it doesn’t seem to matter that Jones is the lone USMNT starter playing in the UEFA Champions League, or that his club team, Schalke, is perennially one of the Germany’s best.
It doesn’t seem to matter that two separate U.S. coaches, current boss Jurgen Klinsmann and his predecessor, Bob Bradley, valued Jones’ pedigree and competitiveness enough to make him a staple in the Yanks’ midfield.
What Jones’ detractors — a group that includes both fans and media members — notice most are the questionable tackles, the imperfect touches and the tendency to roam out of position. They see a red card waiting to happen in the unpredictable world of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
They do have an argument.
On Tuesday, opening day of the 2012-13 Champions League season, Jones got caught upfield during the second half of Schalke’s 2-1 win at Olympiakos. His shot had been blocked at the top of the Greek team’s box, and suddenly David Fuster was on a break that could have easily led to a goal for the hosts had Jones not been able to hack him down.
The tackle earned Jones a caution, but it was a textbook tactical foul. An intelligent play. About 20 minutes later, though, when Jones upended Jose Holebas with a studs-first challenge that miraculously went unpunished — well, that’s the kind of decision that makes the critics cringe.
But there does seem to be a method to Jones’ occasional madness when you look a little closer. For the all the bookings he gets — 14 in 20 Bundesliga games last season — he rarely gets sent off. He hasn’t been red-carded in 26 international matches — hasn’t really come close — and has just one yellow card in the four qualifiers the Americans have played this year.
“He’s not a young kid that’s just running around crazy,” said Mike Sorber, who was Bradley’s top assistant for the final three years of the coach’s tenure. “He’s trying to do it in a way that helps his team.”
Which, for the most part, he does.
At 30, Jones is a key player for Schalke, largely because of the intimidating presence he provides. Opposing midfielders have to be aware of him, and while he’s not a technician with the ball at his feet, his all-world athleticism and booming shot from distance offer a balance to his decidedly defensive game.
Klinsmann clearly values his qualities. Jones has developed a better understanding with his U.S. teammates since the German coach took over last year, and has looked most comfortable occupying the “No. 8″ role. It’s a position he could continue to play if Michael Bradley, who missed the last two matches with a leg injury, is deployed as more of a playmaker in the Americans’ next set of qualifiers. That would allow Jones to again pair with front fellow German-American Danny Williams, a partnership that showed promise in last week’s crucial home win against Jamaica.
“I can learn a lot from him,” Williams said of Jones after the match in Columbus, Ohio. “Whatever I want to know, he gives me advice, and I try to take it because experience is a big thing in soccer.”
It’s a huge thing for the U.S., which can’t afford to keep a player with Jones’ résumé on the bench, regardless of the risks, regardless of what fans and reporters say.
Yes, his critics have a valid argument. But here’s a retort: Legendary hard men like Roy Keane (Manchester United), Gennaro Gattuso (AC Milan) and Patrick Vieira (Arsenal) were polarizing players who picked up tons of yellow cards.
Their teams did OK, didn’t they?
• Nordsjaelland may have lost its Champions League opener Wednesday, but U.S. right back Michael Parkhurst still has five more group games to impress potential suitors. “It’s a big opportunity for me,” Denmark-based Parkhurst told the blog in Jamaica a couple of weeks ago. “I’m out of contract at Christmas so it’s a great time for me to play in big games in front of a lot of people. Those are important games to get my name out there. It’s a little easier to watch those games, and of course playing against the best guys in the world is a perfect way to prove yourself.”
• Sacha Kljestan has found national team invites hard to come by under Klinsmann, but performances like the one he put in against AC Milan on Tuesday can’t hurt his future prospects if any of the regulars get hurt, especially with the Yanks needing offense heading into to their last two semifinal-round qualifiers. Playing on the left side of Anderlecht’s midfield, Kljestan moved the ball quickly and effectively, and had the Belgian side’s best scoring chance in an entertaining scoreless draw.
• Graham Zusi is riding a wave of confidence after his breakout game for the Yanks in Columbus (check out the field-level highlights here). Zusi was involved in both goals in Sporting Kansas City’s 2-0 win at the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night that keeps SKC atop MLS’ Eastern Conference.