Jermaine Jones laid down a pretty bold challenge this week. One that leaves you respecting his confidence, but wondering whether his recent play warrants such swagger.
Speaking to the Max & Herc podcast, co-hosted by former U.S. national team striker Herculez Gomez and fellow ESPN personality Max Bretos, Jones made it clear that he believes he is still the best option to start in the U.S. midfield despite his age, and stated that, at the moment, nobody can take his starting job away from him.
"Bring me the guy who is better in that position, and show that week to week in the league, against me, against other teams," Jones said Monday. "I respect it and I will say, 'If he is better I will step away.'
"I'm 35. I can step away and say I had a good career, but right now if (we're being) honest, ask my teammates, ask the people inside — there's nobody who can take my spot," Jones added. "If it comes to a game, a tough game, there is nobody who really wants to battle with me.”
Bruce Arena certainly seemed to validate that stance by inserting Jones into the starting lineup in last week's World Cup qualifying draw against Panama after Jones served a suspension during the 6-0 home romp against Honduras. Arena saw Jones up close in U.S. national team camp in January and had plenty of praise for his quality and ability to still play at a very high level despite his age. He saw enough to believe Jones should start in what figured to be a tough match in Panama.
While there should be players in line to push Jones out of the U.S. lineup, nobody has quite closed the gap, at least not enough to justify a change just yet. Plenty can change in the next year or so before a U.S. World Cup squad is chosen (assuming the U.S. qualifies), but for now Jones remains a starter.
Why are there calls for Jones to be cast aside? A big reason is his last three qualifiers have left plenty to be desired. Of course, he wasn't the only player to struggle in Costa Rica or Mexico in November, but it is only natural for questions to arise when a player in his mid-30s starts stringing together subpar performances.
It is easy to forget that Jones jumped into the November qualifiers having recently returned from a long injury layoff, and Jurgen Klinsmann miscalculated in his decision to throw Jones back in the lineup despite him clearly not being at 100 percent. That isn't what U.S. fans and media were thinking of after watching Jones struggle to impose himself against Panama last week. What many felt was a sense of a downward trend for Jones. With the team playing very well in Jones' absence, it added to the idea that the Americans were better off without him.
Of course, playing at home against Honduras was a much easier proposition than facing Panama on the road, but that still didn't stop criticism from surfacing about Jones and whether it was time to look elsewhere in the pool for a box-to-box midfielder.
Jones did raise an interesting point in noting that, in the past two big tournaments the U.S. has played — the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa America — he was one of the team's best players, if not the best. That hasn't kept Jones from being the target for criticism at times when the team has struggled.
"The criticism is always on me," Jones said. "Everybody tries it — if we lose the game, they always try to find the next guy who can play for Jermaine. It's never somebody else, it's always me.
"And sometimes, I'll be honest, that p***es me off," he added. "I say, 'Wait a minute! When we play the big tournaments, I'm almost or always the best player on the field for this country.' But then at end of the day, they try to kick me out when we lose games? That is not fair."
Jones didn't come out and say it, but it wasn't tough to read between the lines. You could hear Jones struggle to keep from flat-out saying that he doesn't understand why he faces more criticism than Michael Bradley, especially when there have been questions for the past six years about whether they can play well as a central midfield tandem.
Jones theorized that his German-American heritage made him an easier scapegoat than other players. That would be easier to buy, if not for the fact that German-American Danny Williams is one of the players most often mentioned by fans and media when theorizing about potential Jones replacements.
The more likely cause of the criticism Jones faces is his age. With so many younger options emerging in the pool, from Kellyn Acosta to Emerson Hyndman to Cristian Roldan, any sense that the old guy is not up to par is going to elicit calls for some new blood. That's pretty standard treatment for most players once they hit their 30s. Even a fan favorite like Clint Dempsey has been the subject of that sort of selective ageism, though he has done well to fight off the suggestions with efforts like we saw in last summer's Copa America, and more recently with his four goals in the two March qualifiers.
Jones did have the Copa America as a positive showcase, but that tournament has been the lone clear-cut positive since the 2014 World Cup, a span of almost three years. During that time Jones missed the 2015 Gold Cup because of injury, underperformed in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico, and either missed or failed to impress in World Cup qualifiers in 2015 and 2016.
If Jones wants to stop hearing criticism, then he simply needs to starting playing well again. He isn't entitled to continue starting simply because he played well at last summer's Copa America — much less the 2014 World Cup. The national team is very much a 'What have you done for me lately?' appointment, even more so when you're 35 and a growing crop of younger options is emerging.
Jones should have his opportunity in June, in the World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and Mexico. The Mexico clash will take place at the Estadlio Azteca, in a match that will be the toughest challenge the Americans will face this year. That is the exact kind of game we have seen Jones step up and deliver in throughout his national team career.
If Jones wants the criticism to die down, and the calls for him to be replaced to be put on hold, he needs to step up in those qualifiers. If he doesn't, it won't be a matter of anybody taking his place, but rather Jones playing himself out of the starting spot he has held down for the better part of the past six years.