OBETZ, Ohio — Jermaine Jones had his calendar circled. Even though there were times when he wasn't sure if he would make it all the way back from a knee injury that sidelined him for three months, the U.S. national team midfielder was motivated by one fixture in particular.
Jones wanted to face Mexico badly, and while it wasn't the only thing motivating his recovery — he also had the MLS playoffs in his sights — one more shot at the U.S. team's biggest rivalry was certainly an enticing carrot for him to chase.
"If you have the chance to jump on that boat, especially against (Mexico), it's always what you try to work to," Jones told Goal on Tuesday before the U.S. gathered for its first training session as a full group ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifying showdown with El Tri. "Me and Jurgen, we always stayed in touch, and that's why I came into the camp in Jacksonville, to see how it is. The main goal was to say, 'OK, we need more time to see if it's possible (to play against Mexico).'"
Jones was a major question mark for the U.S. after suffering a torn knee ligament in MLS action July 4. The Rapids stayed mum about the seriousness of the injury, which only led to building uncertainty about just when he would return. Jones raised eyebrows when he traveled to U.S. national team camp in September despite having yet to return to action with the Rapids. The visit gave him a better understanding of how much further he had to go in his recovery, a process that tested his resolve.
"There was a point maybe where I got frustrated with the whole injury, but I always tried to believe that I could make it," Jones said. "The week before we played with my club, Colorado, against Houston, I feel really good and said, 'OK, I can make it, but I need games.' (Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni) was always in touch with Jurgen to give me games and give me minutes so I can have that chance to jump on the boat."
Klinsmann and the U.S. are happy to have him back. A tough and fearless player who has a penchant for raising his level the bigger the game is, Jones has shown his top form as recently as June's Copa America, when he was one of the U.S. team's most influential players. For that reason, Jones stands a very good chance of being in the starting lineup Friday despite having played just two matches for the Rapids since his return from a nearly four-month layoff.
If Klinsmann needed convincing that Jones was ready, he got it in Colorado. The U.S. coach was in attendance Sunday to see Jones turn in a man of the match-caliber performance in the Rapids' playoff series clincher against the LA Galaxy. Jones showed no signs of rust as he covered acres of ground, and pushed the Rapids to victory before leaving the match in the 83rd minute with cramps.
"Jermaine Jones is a player that, when he's on the field, other teams simply fear him," Klinsmann said during Sunday's broadcast announcement of the U.S. roster. "Other teams simply respect him a lot. There's the body language, there's his energy, there's the dynamic approach to everything he's doing. He's just elevating the games with his presence and that's why, to have him just in our roster — and I'm not saying that he's playing from the beginning against Mexico — but just having him with us is huge for us."
Jones has faced Mexico on four occasions with the U.S., and while he has enjoyed the highs of beating El Tri in qualifying in Columbus (2013), and in Mexico City (the first U.S. win at Estadio Azteca, back in 2012), Jones has also tasted the bitter pill of defeat. He was a starter in 2011 when the U.S. lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and most recently a year ago, in the CONCACAF Cup loss at the Rose Bowl.
"It took the Confederations Cup away from us," Jones said of the CONCACAF Cup loss. "But if you look back at that game, and that goal they scored, he [Paul Aguilar] wouldn't score that goal again. You have to respect that, it was a good game from both sides. Now it's a completely new battle, for something new we want, which is to get to the World Cup."
Jones looked like he might wind up missing the November qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica when he went down on multiple occasions with cramps Sunday. But he eventually emerged unscathed, having benefited from the much-needed challenge provided by Colorado's two playoff matches against the Galaxy.
"For me, I'm happy about it. I got two games in, so it's really good," Jones said. "For me, it's really good. For other guys (whose teams were already eliminated from the playoffs), maybe they're on holiday already, they probably wish they weren't on holiday, so it was really good for me in the playoff rounds to get the games in."
Will those two games be enough to get Jones ready for the most important game of the year for the U.S.? Given how important he has been to the national team, Jones should get the chance to find out.