SAO PAULO — The best joke told during the unusual press conference conducted Friday morning by U.S. Soccer — perhaps the only joke — was delivered by midfielder Jermaine Jones as he inched toward his first-ever World Cup appearance at age 32. And there was no translator required for a unilingual American reporter to be in on the laugh, only a bit of local knowledge and a sense of humor.
It seems that as the World Cup opened Thursday evening with a game between Brazil and Croatia, most members of the U.S. men’s national team gathered to watch in a players’ lounge at the team hotel. And goalkeeper Tim Howard, 35, fell asleep on the couch.
This was mentioned to Jones, and he responded: “Yeah, the problem is like, we train hard, and Timmy’s like a little bit older, so he has to sleep.”PHOTOS: Opening ceremony | Brazil protests | Soccer fanatics | Fan tattoos
We laughed. Look, it wasn’t Louis C.K. funny, but it was pretty good ad lib for a fellow whose primary language is German. You may know that about him. He was the first of the current wave of German-American players to choose to compete for the United States.
Born in Frankfurt to a German mother and U.S. serviceman father, he began as a professional player in his home country and played for its youth teams and briefly at the senior level, but was unlikely to become a regular and decided to take the opportunity to reach the World Cup wearing the uniform of his father’s nation.
He did not play in his first U.S. game until 2010 and already has 42 appearances for the national team. He has more experience with the American squad that roughly half of those who are expected to suit up to start Monday evening’s opening Group G game against Ghana in Natal.
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Since a FIFA rules change in 2009 liberated Jones to make a one-time switch in national team allegiance — he’d played in the U-20 World Cup for Germany and previously was not free to change to the U.S. — a half-dozen other German-born Americans have joined the U.S. program. That’s largely because German soccer hero Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as head coach and did a phenomenal job recruiting them, but also because Jones’ experience has been mostly positive.
There has been the matter of U.S. fans’ concern about his sometimes reckless style, which has made him one of the most frequently yellow-carded players in the European professional leagues. Americans worry that he’s always on the edge of getting one too many cautions and being ejected, or perhaps committing a foul so flagrant he advances immediately to a straight red card — though he’s never been sent off when representing the United States.
His contributions to the team’s recent success as a box-to-box player who adds a snarling sort of toughness to the midfield have not always been celebrated, but they have been mostly appreciated.
However, even though he is committed enough to the U.S. to have endured the discomfort of having a giant star comprising American-style stars-and-stripes tattooed on his knee, though he spent time in Mississippi as a boy and owns a home in California, and though he told ESPN’s Doug McIntyre, “Ever since I was young, I wanted the chance to play for America,” there has been a minor but surprising backlash to his presence — and those of the other German-Americans — since the World Cup roster was introduced with four such players included and no Landon Donovan.
Jones appeared on the first episode of ESPN’s “Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil” for a sit-down interview and chose to respond to questions in German. Some who had not been exposed to Jones other than to watch him patrolling the midfield in the No. 13 USA jersey and now were needing subtitles to understand his words concluded he was unable to speak their language.
Not that this would be any sort of offense to anyone but an ardent xenophobe, but it simply isn’t true. Jones speaks English quite well. He has a slight but not harsh accent. His syntax is occasionally inventive, but always logical. His only real quirk with the language is that instead of buying time for an answer with an “uh” or a “well” or a “you know,” Jones covers most of his pauses with the word “so.” Seems to say it nearly every time he starts an English sentence.
He is here to play in a World Cup for himself, but like the most experienced of U.S. players — Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and, of course, Howard — he is here to advance the cause of the national team and soccer in America.
“I think it’s important to have some guys to step on them, to take the team and push the team,” Jones said. “For me, it’s the first World Cup. I want to try to win all these games we play. I’m a guy, I hate to lose.
“In my eyes, I have like Timmy, Clint, Michael, Jozy — when we see the team is like in a bad feeling, or see that some guys feel a little bit down, we have to take them and push them onward. We have only one chance to win our games. We need everybody, so we have to make sure we push everybody.”
He seemed serious when he said this, and very American.