Why the Colorado Rapids' attack needs Jermaine Jones
Jones gave the Rapids a sense of purpose when he came on at halftime of the team’s Western Conference semifinal-opening loss to the LA Galaxy, dramatically boosting energy and providing an attacking impetus that had been missing. He also offered, for a time, the tantalizing possibility the Rapids might pull out a victory or a draw.
Now Pablo Mastroeni must determine if the U.S. national team midfielder is ready, after a significant layoff with a knee injury that was worse than anyone let on, to take the reins for Sunday's home leg. The club and its supporters hope Jones can spark the push for a second MLS Cup.
“There's a possibility that he's ready to go,” Mastroeni said after the Galaxy's 1-0 triumph at StubHub Center. “[With he] having been out four months, my biggest fear is setting him back with an injury. You've got to put chains on him to keep him off the field, but I think [this] is a performance that shows he's relaxed, he's not thinking about his knee, he's moving well, making some good plays, so look forward to a good week of training, and we'll see how we go.”
When available, Jones has been talismanic this year for Colorado, which picked him up from the New England Revolution just before the season kicked off. His is a commanding presence in the middle -- nearly everything revolves around him -- and the Rapids play with a certain swagger that's absent when he's not on the field. They become dynamic and dominant, not just a richly efficient defensive team.
The before-and-after in Sunday's game was telling. The Galaxy pushed the game in the first half, but Jones' halftime arrival changed the game entirely. He breathed life into the team, giving it greater bite and movement. He demanded the ball and kept it moving, creating coherence in attack. Jones helped Colorado stand up to LA and battle on equal terms, more or less, the rest of the way.
“I would say in the first half, we went into it with too much respect, but in the second half, I would say we showed our real face,” Jones said afterward. “That's important.”
Jermaine Jones with a good effort but Rowe with a fantastic save to maintain the lead. pic.twitter.com/T0zgaimw7o
— Total MLS (@TotalMLS) October 30, 2016
Jones' first 15 minutes were terrific. He stripped Jelle Van Damme of the ball in a dangerous spot just two minutes into the second half, set up a chance for Shkelzen Gashi soon after, got into the box to win a corner kick after that, and, after Axel Sjoberg misplayed Giovani Dos Santos' header into an LA goal, nearly buried a stunning blast toward the upper-right corner that Brian Rowe dived to parry.
“He came in, gave us some good energy, had a few looks on goal, did a lot of dirty work in the midfield, won some balls,” Mastroeni said. “And I think there were moments in the game where he brought the tempo of the game down a little bit for us and gave us some good possession of the ball and some territory as well.”
Jones picked up a yellow card in the 60th minute and wasn't quite as effective afterward. Some of that is about game fitness: He'd seen 25 minutes or so at the end of the Rapids' regular-season finale against Houston 10 days ago and nothing else since tearing the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee on July 4.
“I feel good,” he said afterward. “Me and Pablo had a conversation before the game, and it was all good, so I said OK. At halftime he comes to me and says, 'Are you ready?' I'm always happy to come back. I'm happy to be on the field and play.”
— Colorado Rapids (@ColoradoRapids) October 31, 2016
The Rapids need him. Their season ends with a draw Sunday at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, and the Galaxy also would go through if it scores in a one-goal loss. Colorado has tallied multiple goals only 10 times this year, but it seldom concedes at home -- just seven goals in 17 games -- and gains a huge advantage from Denver's altitude. The longer the game goes, the wearier the foe grows.
The numbers reflect Jones’ impact. The Rapids are 5-0-3 in games he's started (2.25 points per game) with 11 goals for and five against. When he's not in the XI, be it because of suspension, national team absence, or injury, Colorado’s 10-7-10 (1.11 points per game) with 28 goals for and 28 against.
The Rapids feel the difference when he's there. They believe that will provide a significant edge in the second leg.
“You could tell his presence on the field, just with him being out there …,” defender Jared Watts said. “We know he's going to be a big part of this going into next weekend, and we're confident with him going forward.”
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.