It's finally time: The USMNT can't keep relying on Jermaine Jones
He was simply overmatched by a highly athletic and energetic Panamanian team. And since energy and athleticism (along with abundant skill and desire) have always been on Jones’ calling card, that’s a real problem.
The point earned Tuesday in Panama was highly useful, never mind a U.S. performance best described as “unlovely.” Years and years of history have taught us that matches in Central America or the Caribbean will mostly go that way, even if too many U.S. Soccer supporters and media tend to habitually lose track of that reality.
Beyond Christian Pulisic or Tim Howard, nobody in a U.S. shirt had an outstanding night. It wasn’t an evening for outstanding; it was a night to scrap out a result.
Generally, a bunch of so-so nights for U.S. men individually is nothing to get worked up about. There might be a couple of exceptions, however, a couple of instructive lessons gleaned from the point in Panama.
For instance, Graham Zusi still defends like a midfielder, which comes as no surprise. He’s a career-long midfielder, pressed into duty at right back even though he’s learning the position on the fly.
Then we get to Jones, the real pickle in this barrel. It’s a squeeze Bruce Arena will need to address. Or, put more directly, it’s a headache Arena should probably just outright eliminate.
Look, Jones has been an absolute warrior for the national team. His indomitable presence has always been as valuable as his on-field performance. It all came together beautifully in the 2014 World Cup, when Jones’ gritty resolve, skill and industry helped drive the Americans to their primary target, a second round appearance.
But these things never last forever, do they?
This feels a bit like Carlos Bocanegra, whose declining foot speed at age 33 became a gloomy talking point during a World Cup qualifier in Kansas City. Beaten badly by an aging Carlos Ruiz, that night became the longtime, trusty captain’s nadir.
Tuesday night felt like the same for Jones. It might not be for another player, but Jones was always a tactical problem to solve, for every U.S. coach (three of them now). More on that in a moment. For now, just consider some data from Tuesday in Panama City. If we put all of his actions in a small overnight bag (completed passes, recoveries, tackles, interceptions, etc.) ,we’d still have plenty of room in that bag. There just wasn’t enough going on.
He was simply overmatched by a highly athletic and energetic Panamanian team. And since energy and athleticism (along with abundant skill and desire) have always been on Jones’ calling card, that’s a real problem. Again, he’s 35. This arrival of inevitable decline cannot surprise anyone.
With Jones, there was always an implied “deal” between managers and the man himself. He was frequently caught out of position, way too often on run-abouts, too quick with the chancy pass, flirting with tactical indiscipline but generally able to hustle back into position or help regain possession quickly. It was always less of an issue when Michael Bradley or some similarly cooperative midfield mind, perhaps one even more defensively minded (think Kyle Beckerman), dutifully covered the gaps. Jones’ more-than-adequate assets, the ground covering, the tackling, the ball winning and a few swell entry balls into the final third were sufficient to tolerate his maverick tendencies.
Now? That no longer seems to be the case.
If nothing else, can we all agree on this now: Jones and Clint Dempsey simply cannot function in the same starting lineup. Seriously, it’s got to be one or the other, doesn’t it?
Tuesday in Panama may have been worth a gamble with these two in tandem. First, a build-up of injuries left Arena’s options seriously depleted. Further, Arena and his men are in no position to gamble, with the World Cup spot so preciously dependent on a basic formula: win at home, draw on the road. Wins on the road are better, naturally, but that’s the simplest approach along the road to Russia.
Jones in a cauldron is Jones at his best, in his most useful state. So trying Bradley and Jones together in the middle of a 4-4-2, on a splotchy field surrounded by a hostile crowd, clearly seemed worth the risk for Arena.
But when it came to soccer-ing, it left Jones and Dempsey operating in similar areas, and it went south fast.
An arrangement that had Dempsey dropping beneath striker Jozy Altidore and Jones playing nominally ahead of Bradley left 34- and a 35-year-old freelancer to operate centrally in the opposition half. Panama flooded the midfield, buzzing with intent. The net-out was no U.S. possession to speak of, a stranded Altidore and Bradley with way, way too much room to cover in front of his back line.
Jones couldn’t connect with Dempsey or Altidore, nor did he recover into defensive position alongside Bradley quickly enough. So … what’s left, if Jones can’t do any of that?
He can still be an effective force in MLS. And even at the international level, Jones might have some remaining utility. But with younger legs around who can begin inheriting Jones’ role (Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget (currently injured), Dax McCarty, Danny Williams for starters, all of whom bring a slightly different skill set), it feels like a time for moving on.
Besides all that, there was a time when assembling the United States pieces around Jones and, even more so, around Dempsey, made a lot of sense. Now there is clearly someone better to build around: a dude named Pulisic who is climbing extraordinarily fast.
Building the right kind of support, balance and cover around Pulisic looks more and more like a no-brainer. It’s going to help squeeze out Jones. Then again, something was bound to.
Steve Davis' column, America's Game, appears weekly on FourFourTwo USA. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveDavis90.