By Greg Lalas
When I heard Jermaine Jones had pledged himself to the United States thanks to the new, loosened regulations set forth by FIFA last week regarding nationality, I called all the soccer people I know. The immediate responses varied from “That’s interesting” to “Jermaine who?”
But one response tapped into exactly what I was thinking: “This changes everything.”
Hyperbolic? Certainly. But the exaggeration underscores Jones’s abilities.
Jones’s FIFA petition still has to be approved, and one can imagine the many things that could go wrong along the way, but the 27-year-old son of an American soldier is the kind of upgraded talent the US team could use. No, he’s not Kaka' or Messi or some other talismanic human highlight reel. But he is the starting holding midfielder for Bundesliga giant Schalke, a fact that automatically interjects Jones's name into the conversation.
A fleet-footed box-to-boxer who made three appearances for Germany in friendlies in 2008, Jones plays with an Army-brat’s brazenness and possesses a firebrand's penchant for hard tackles and perpetual motion. He's skilled enough on the ball, likes to get into the attack, and can fire a shot when the opportunity arises.
Most importantly, the former captain of Eintracht Frankfurt can also provide the no-excuses leadership this U.S. team could use right now. He's shown he's unafraid to assert himself as a field general with Schalke, urging his teammates on and delivering timely tackles. One can imagine how Jones, who has courted controversy occasionally with some choice words in the press, would've reacted to the spiritless performance in Costa Rica nearly two weeks ago.
Tactically, Jones would fit nicely alongside a creative player like Landon Donovan or Benny Feilhaber. Jones would do all the dirty work, freeing Donovan or Feilhaber to find the seams and get forward. And now and then, Jones would get himself into the attack. He does have nine Bundesliga goals to his name since 2005, and a wicked shot from distance.
Wait, what about Michael Bradley? This is a big question: Can Bradley, one of the presumed starters in the midfield, play with a similar player like Jones? It’s a good question. Maybe the answer is no. But maybe Jones's presence would actually allow Bradley to push forward more, as he has done successfully for Borussia Monchengladbach.
But the most difficult task of all is not tactical. It’s emotional.
How does U.S. coach Bob Bradley integrate a player who grew up outside the U.S. system? How does he keep his regular's trust after inserting a new face who has not been part of the team make-up during the ups and downs of the last year, who didn’t suffer through the slings and arrows of Costa Rica or knuckle down to get a point against El Salvador?
Luckily, Bradley has experience when it comes to utilizing an accomplished player from a rabid soccer culture. As coach of the Chicago Fire in the late 90s, Bradley handled Polish international Peter Nowak so well, they won the Major League Soccer Cup together. Later, while coaching New York, Bradley got the most out of Honduran captain Amado Guevara (making him perhaps the only club coach ever to do that). He even coerced strong performances out of his Mexican players at Chivas USA. So, arguably, Bradley has more relevant experience than any other American coach when it comes to introducing a foreign player into the U.S. fold—a fact that benefits just about everyone except the player, or players, Jones supplants.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, Jones hasn’t even been called into the team, and a spokesman for the federation told me on Friday afternoon that Jones hadn't had any contact personally with anyone at U.S. Soccer. I suspect that will change soon enough. At least I hope so. Providing the FIFA logistics are cleared up, the U.S. team should call Jones in as soon as possible (the new age regulations don't start until October 1). Then we'll see he can do for his true fatherland.
Greg Lalas is editor in chief of the forthcoming Goal.com Magazine.