The central midfielder can be a polarizing figure among USA fans, but his play will go a long way in determining the Americans' success against Mexico in Columbus Tuesday night.
On the surface it shouldn't. Not when you consider his credentials as a regular starter on Schalke's Champions League side. He regularly turns in strong outings for the Germany club, and he remains the only U.S. player on a Champions League team in one of Europe’s top leagues.
So why does Jones' standing in Klinsmann's eyes not match public perception? It doesn't, because Jones has failed to be a consistent force in his more than two years as a national team regular. He has shown us flashes of his excellent ability, that same quality that makes him stand out for Schalke, but what we have seen more of is his inconsistency and lack of discipline in terms of decision-making and positioning.
Klinsmann and the USA will need Jones to play like one of the best players on the national team on Tuesday night against Mexico. It is the kind of game that makes reputations, and the stage is set for Jones to shine.
The German-born midfielder had a similar opportunity last Friday against Costa Rica, when Michael Bradley's pre-game injury left the USA without its most influential midfielder. Instead of thrive, Jones struggled badly early on, turning the ball over repeatedly and leaving the team scrambling to deal with an inspired Costa Rican attack.
Bradley's absence shines the light squarely on Jones, who saw his partnership with the Roma midfielder improve during the USA's unbeaten run through June. What we also saw was Bradley firmly establish himself as the main force in the middle, the tone setter, while Jones seemed to settle into a complementary role.
With more time to prepare for a game plan without Bradley, Klinsmann will need to build his midfield around Jones, and he needs Jones to be the imposing figure he is supposed to be. And we aren’t just talking about Jones being a pitbull in the middle capable of striking some fear in Mexican playmakers.
Jones must also contribute to the attack with the pinpoint passes he has in his repertoire, even if those passes are more rare from him in a U.S uniform than with his club team. It will be interesting to see who Klinsmann lines up around Jones, and make no mistake, Jones will be on the field on Tuesday.
As much as there are some calls for him to be benched, he is still too good a player to leave out, even with some other options available. Klinsmann has preferred three central midfielders against Mexico the last two times the teams met, and Jones was a key figure on each of those occasions, but the big difference this time around is the U.S. at home.
We wouldn’t expect the U.S. to play an overly defensive lineup, say one with Jones, Beckerman and Jose Torres. No, what we should expect is the U.S. to really try and attack Mexico, even though that may come with risk. The only way such an approach can work is if Jones is playing well, and if he turns in another sloppy, turnover-filled game, the Americans could find themselves overwhelmed yet again.
As for the last time a U.S. team really tried to attack Mexico? That would be the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, when the U.S. jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Mexico before collapsing in a 4-2 loss. On that day, Jones failed to deliver and went down as one of the players who simply didn’t get the job done.
There have been far too many of just those kind of big games that demanded strong performances where we have seen Jones not show his quality and fail to take command. Whatever the reason, Jones has no excuse against Mexico this time around. Bradley is injured, Geoff Cameron is suspended and former regular Maurice Edu has fallen out of the picture due to injuries.
That means Klinsmann needs Jones to complement the likes of Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud in the middle, and not just work with them. He needs to lead them. Klinsmann has said many times how Jones is an influential presence in the locker room, and a natural leader on the team.
If he does indeed have these qualities, then Tuesday is his chance to show just why Klinsmann holds him in such high regard, while also showing why projecting a soon-to-be 32-year-old midfielder as a World Cup lock isn’t a stretch. And If Jones doesn’t step it up and deliver a signature performance on Tuesday night? Then the U.S. team will likely struggle to deal with a Mexican team desperate for a result, and a World Cup qualifying campaign that seemed a formality just a week ago will suddenly become a more precarious proposition.