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Is Jermaine Jones misunderstood?

Jermaine Jones
Jermaine Jones remains the glue that holds the United States' midfield together.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jermaine Jones twists up the sleeves of his red United States Soccer Federation polo shirt, revealing snaking tattoos underneath. His face is shiny: there are twirls hanging out of his short, tidy afro. He tugs at the six bracelets around his right wrist, each bearing the name of one of his five children and his wife.

Jones is what used to be called a mercenary, a player who could have appeared for two national teams. The United States, an emigrant nation, has historically been full of these players, and you can trace a line from Haitian legend Joe Gaetjens through German-born Thomas Dooley to the present day.

But Jones is something new for American fans. He’s a central midfielder who roams and wins balls, shuttling between attacking and defending. It means that when the ball turns over high up the field, he’s the first line of defense. And sometimes that means having to drop a hard tackle to keep the defense from getting overrun, to prevent a potential goal. He is an enforcer for his club Schalke 04 and for the USA, and that’s something Americans aren’t used to.

His own fans call him a dirty player. Some suggest he’s one of the dirtiest in the game. Americans expect Jones to pick up a card to the point that it has become a running joke. If you ask him about why fans think this way, Jones will look you in the eyes, and twist his bracelets.

After his American serviceman father and his German mother split up, Jones left Mississippi at age seven and grew up in Bonames, a tough outskirt of Frankfurt. “For me, I like it,” says Jones. “It’s a nice town. But it’s not easy to grow up [there]. You learn fast to grow up like a man.”

By the time he was a teenager, he was coming up with Eintracht Frankfurt as one of the biggest striker prospects in Germany. At 21, he moved to Bayer Leverkusen. “I made a lot of mistakes,” recalls Jones. “I was going out with my friends. When I moved to this club, I took my five best friends to move with me. It was partying and barbequing and you aren’t focused on what you need to do.”

He didn’t play much and within six months he was back on loan with Frankfurt. But not until his new manager Friedhelm Funkel, who had since taken over the club, had extracted a promise from him. “He told me, ‘I take the risk but you need to tell me if you can change your whole life,’” recalls Jones. “I gave him my hand, told him I will be always focused on soccer and won’t go out and make mistakes. He takes me back, makes me a [holding midfielder] and then makes me captain.”

Jones kept his promise. He settled down and hardly goes out anymore. He’s a father himself now. “Kids change you a lot,” he says. “You can’t be this crazy guy that you always were before. Okay, sometimes on the field it happens again.” He smirks at this. “But outside I’m relaxed. I don’t like to go out so much. I love to be home, to stay with my kids.”

But about those fouls.

“In my career, I have made maybe two or three fouls that I say are dirty fouls and not correct,” Jones says. He is sitting in a chair in the lobby of the USA’s hotel here ahead of Friday’s World Cup qualifier against Jamaica. “It’s the same at my club. When you have four players in front of you who attack with you but who don’t come back [and defend] with you, they leave you alone and I always have to break the game down and stop it so they can come back.

“Sometimes the [fans] say, ‘What are you doing? Why do you get so many yellow cards?’ But when the others score the goals, they don’t say, ‘You made the [expletive] work so they can make the goal.’ When you play [as a holding midfielder], you know you have that [expletive] position and nobody talks about you, they talk about the strikers. But you make the most work for everybody and need to play them the ball to make the goal. That’s a part of what we do and that’s okay.”

Jones’ tendency to the dirty work may be overlooked by fans. But it doesn’t go unnoticed by others on the US national team.

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“He’s a battler,” says captain Clint Dempsey. “He gets stuck in on challenges, he’s a good ball-winner, a good passer, he works really hard for the team and plays through injuries. You need players like that on your team.”

“He brings a high level of aggressiveness, leadership, tempo with the ball, tempo by passing the ball, and also by sending signals to opponents,” says his head coach, Jurgen Klinsman. “In the US, we might be a little too much stuck on statistics. They give something [like yellow cards] a bit too much importance that is actually totally not important. Certain yellow cards were a lot of tactical fouls that actually helped the team. I feel he was a bit misread over some time now.

“You play against a player like Jermaine in central midfield, that’s a handful,” adds Klinsmann. “At the end of the day, in these games it’s all about who is intimidating who, who controls who, which we don’t see [from the] outside. And when you play against a guy like Jermaine, you want the other guys to say, ‘Shoot, I can’t fool around. I’m going into the grind.’ He’s good at grinding people [down].”

Jones’s playing style is, in many ways, an extension of himself.

Jones made his debut for the USA in October 2010, after announcing his intention to switch allegiance from Germany back in June 2009. Injuries and paperwork stalled the process. But the move had actually been in the works much longer.

Jones says he first tried to switch to the USA when he was 21, back in 2002. He’d played a youth tournament in Florida with Frankfurt and since he couldn’t afford the plane ticket to go back and see the US properly, to discover his roots, he figured playing for the national team program might be a good way to do it. “I wanted to get to know America because I hadn’t been in touch with it,” he says. “But people told me it was not possible.” He’d played in the 2001 Under-20 World Cup with Germany. So he was tied to the Germany program.

He thought he could represent Germany at the youth level and still play for the USA’s senior team. “If I’d known that before, maybe I’d have played a lot of games for America already,” says Jones. Instead, he had to wait until he was 28. The rules were changed then. Since he’d never represented Germany’s senior team in an official game – the three friendlies he appeared in didn’t count – Jones could make a one-time switch.

“Jermaine was always very strongly connected [to America],” says Klinsmann. “He was always here on vacation, he had a place here already. He already put roots down in this country.”

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“I feel both,” Jones says, asked if he feels more German or American. “I have a part of me that is German and a part of me is American. When you see me, first you will say, ‘He’s American.’ I look American. My name is American. But I have a German [side]. I don’t like to come late and I’m precise and all that stuff.”

Jones has a house in Los Angeles. So does his father. They were estranged for two decades, from the time Jones left Mississippi until about four years ago, when his wife Sarah, a former Miss Germany, tracked him down for Jermaine’s birthday – something Jermaine hadn’t been able to pull off on his own.

“He called me at two o’clock in the morning: ‘Happy Birthday, my son,’” Jones remembers. “I told him, ‘Tomorrow I have an important game, I can’t talk with you now.’ The next day I called him back and to this day we stay in touch.”

The boy who left America when he was seven now has such influence on its national team that with just 26 caps under his belt, he was one of just four candidates for the captaincy when Carlos Bocanegra was shunted earlier this year.

So why are American fans unconvinced of his abilities? The fact is: he is one of the United States’ best and most valuable players.

Since joining Schalke 04 in 2007 – with a brief loan spell with Blackburn Rovers in 2011 – Jones has been a mainstay in the UEFA Champions League, doing his enforcing at the highest stage in club soccer. And Jones has gotten a grip on his fouling, quietly cutting his yellow cards down from 14 in Schalke’s 2011-12 season to just six this past year.

“He went through a learning process,” says Klinsmann. “He understands now when to step back and keep himself under control. The more responsibilities you give him, the more he feels accountable for what he’s doing.”

Jones is a leader on a team that a lot of fans would rather he weren’t on. The chorus of Jones critics is vocal and sizable. When the USA plays badly, he takes a lot of the heat.

For Jones, that’s just more dirty work to be done.

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