RECIFE, Brazil -- Two of the most maligned players during this World Cup cycle have become indispensable components for the U.S. national team.
The duo in question is Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, and in last Monday's World Cup opener against Ghana, both players were immense. Jones broke up play after play, and he showed plenty of street smarts, including one sequence where he shielded the ball for what seemed like an eternity before winning a throw-in deep in Ghana's half. On the surface, it seems an inconsequential play, but on a night when the U.S. struggled to keep possession, it allowed the Americans to catch their breath, get their bearings and keep the ball for a bit.
Beckerman meanwhile was doing his bit on defense, as well, providing his usual bulwark in front of the back line. He was also one of the few players on the night to take care of the ball, completing 85 percent of his passes. Even better, his precision increased as the match wore on and the Americans were trying to protect a slender one-goal lead.
For former U.S. international Kasey Keller, it was a match that was less about beautiful soccer and more about "run, tackle, fight, kick, scratch. It fit those two players perfectly."
Yet it was about a year ago that both players were drawing the ire of a considerable segment of the U.S. fan base. In Jones' case, this seems to have been a result of high expectations that come with being a Champions League regular with German side Schalke, combined with some uneven play on the field for the national team. It rankled that Jones' play at club level for Schalke, even in the Champions League, seemed several notches above what he showed in a U.S. shirt.
"I think a little bit with Jones was fans thought he was a liability, that he would pick up a second yellow," Keller said. "I think there was a worry about that. I also think at times he tried to be a little bit more of a playmaker than he actually is."
When Jones suffered a concussion against Jamaica last June, he was replaced in the lineup by Geoff Cameron, who delivered a sharp and composed performance. At this point, the number of calls for Jones to be replaced reached a crescendo.
But U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann has always valued the physicality and presence that Jones brings. And he's found a system and position that plays to Jones' strengths.
Now stationed just to the left and a bit in front of Beckerman, Jones provides plenty of midfield steel. He contributes to the attack, as well, but now as more of a complementary piece. He's also shown an impressive amount of discipline that has largely flown under the radar, having now gone 11 straight matches without a yellow card.
"Jones isn't trying to be a playmaker now, he's making plays. There's a big difference," former U.S. international Taylor Twellman said. "Whether it's defending in front of DaMarcus Beasley, defending next to Beckerman, or keeping possession or running out of midfield as that fourth or fifth guy in the attack, I think that's where he excels."
The ire directed in Beckerman's direction is a little harder to fathom. He's never been the fastest player, but his astute positioning, hard tackling and efficient passing ought to have been more appreciated. Instead, a poor match at Jamaica in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying seemed to stick with him.
The turnaround for Beckerman started at last year's Gold Cup thanks to a series of sharp performances, and then accelerated in the home World Cup qualifier against Mexico, a night when injury and suspension forced Beckerman and Jones to be paired together for the first time in the Hexagonal.
"I think Beckerman was underrated for what he brings," Twellman said. "I think he's also a player that has to be in the right system. And I think since the Gold Cup in '13, every single game it's almost as if he gets better. Part of that is the system in 2014, part of that is confidence in the sense that he's proven."
That aforementioned system seems to have brought the best out of both players. Beckerman's one-man shield routine is similar to the one he plays for club side Real Salt Lake, one that enables him to play the kind of passes that help maintain possession. Jones' two-way role allows him to play within himself offensively, while still providing the kind of borderline intimidating presence on defense.
Of course, part of the reason Jones and Beckerman stood out against Ghana was because the U.S. was forced to defend for the vast majority of the match. Against Portugal, the U.S. will be hoping to do more to control the pace of the game.
Either way, a repeat performance in midfield by Jones and Beckerman will be needed against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal teammates. If they can deliver, then once again they'll have observers singing their praises.