By FRANCO PANIZO
BOCA RATON, Fla. — Jermaine Jones was hesitant.
Despite playing centerback previously in his career for both Schalke and Besiktas, he was not entirely sure about doing so on the international level. U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann approached Jones with the idea, but the midfielder was uncertain about it before eventually coming around and embracing the challenge.
Jones took the first step in tackling that challenge like he would any opposing attacking player, starting and going the distance in the U.S.’s central defense for the first time in a 1-1 draw with Honduras at FAU Stadium. The World Cup veteran never looked out of place there and was arguably the top American on the field until he lost his mark, Maynor Figueroa, on an 86th-minute set piece that pulled the Hondurans level.
While that play put a dent into the outing, Jones was otherwise very sturdy next to Matt Besler. Jones was not overly tested, but he put out a few fires and held his own just as he has so many times in his natural center midfield role.
“I think this position is one of the easiest positions on the field,” said Jones. “You have experience and I think you can read the game a little bit and you’re physical – I have no problem to battle games – so that position I think it’s easier to play then when you play on No. 6.”
For Klinsmann, the move to push Jones back and experiment with him in the defense this early into the new four-year cycle is one done to try and prolong the veteran’s career. Jones has a pedigree that few other players in the U.S. pool can match, but is 32 and unlikely to make it through this World Cup cycle as a central midfielder given the number of prospects coming through the pipeline.
Klinsmann knows it would be valuable to keep Jones around for as long as possible while introducing the next generation of talent, and it is for that reason why you likely will see more of Jones at centerback in the coming months.
“We wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a long term thought to it,” said Klinsmann. “I think it was two or two-and-a-half years ago, (defensive midfielder) Mo Edu play that role and now Mo is actually playing that role. Defensive midfielders usually, with their rate of play and their vision and their sense for it, can easily move one step back and play a centerback role.
“Obviously, it takes a little bit of time. It takes some good understanding with the other centerback, with the outside back, but Jermaine played there before. He played there a couple of times at Schalke. He played there a couple of times at Besiktas, actually, as well.
“I was not worried at all about that, but also it’s a thought seeing as he is 32. Is he now the box-to-box player for the next for years, on turf fields? I don’t know. I doubt it a little bit. That might be a better role over a longer stretch of time, so it was good for us to test that out.”
There was another thought behind the experiment. Having Jones in central defense would give the U.S. someone with the necessary leadership skills, defensive ability, and confidence on the ball to play a higher line.
Klinsmann has said since this summer’s World Cup that he wants to see the Americans play a higher defensive line that allows for the whole team to move into more advanced positions up the field. The U.S. was caught too deep at times in the tournament, and conceded a bunch of possession and chances to Germany and Belgium, respectively, before bowing out in the Round of 16.
Jones was part of the reason why the U.S. was able to execute that so effectively in the first half on Tuesday night, as the Americans dominated possession and limited the Hondurans when they had the ball. Things changed quite a bit in the final 45 minutes when Honduras threw more numbers forward and Klinsmann made a number of substitutions, but the positives were there to draw from.
“The thinking behind it was his leadership,” said Klinsmann. “We’re trying to push it kind of higher up the field, encourage them to go one against one, maybe balls drop over the back line, be loud and vocal and clean passes as well, which is one of his trademarks.
“I think he did a good job. Obviously, they had I don’t know how many set pieces, free kicks and corner kicks. That always is an option for something to happen, as it did a couple minutes before the end of the game, but I think we saw a couple of good elements there.”
Building on those elements will now likely be the case for both Jones and Klinsmann. Jones still needs continue to grow more comfortable at centerback, including on set pieces, and needs to be tested against a higher quality of opponent to see how he really measures up.
Only then can it be determined if this is an experiment worth making permanent, but Jones is up for it so as to stick around the U.S. setup for the foreseeable future.
“I know Jurgen Klinsmann now a long time and he some times have crazy ideas and he do this and he asked me and I was first a little bit like, ‘..Okay.'” said Jones, pausing to illustrate his uncertainty. “But I have no problem with that, the position is okay and maybe I have some fun in the next years.”