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Jun 16, 2009

Jones' arrival will upgrade U.S. midfield

The next time he runs into Mohamed Raouraoua, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati might want to invite the head of the Algerian Football Federation to lunch. The Algerians were responsible for getting the ball rolling on a measure that, once ratified, will allow more players to switch national allegiance. The measure, which was tabled at the annual FIFA Congress staged earlier this month in the Bahamas, would allow players of any age to switch national allegiance, provided they have never played an "A" international match for their full national team (meaning a match in a competitive international tournament such as the Gold Cup, World Cup, or World Cup qualifying, and excluding friendlies). The Algerians, like many sides on the African continent, have their eyes on a number of second-generation nationals who have participated in the youth setups of European national teams. But one of the highest-profile players to declare his intention to switch allegiance in the wake of the ruling says he would like to don the stars and stripes of the United States. Jermaine Jones is a fiery defensive destroyer who roams the midfield for German power FC Schalke 04, enforcing his will on would-be attackers. The son of a German mother and an African-American serviceman, Jones' flexibility and penchant for joining the attack has earned him a reputation as one of the best in Germany at his position, and he is considered one of the more menacing forces in the already steel-laden Bundesliga. "I think he's a really well-rounded player," said U.S. national team defender Heath Pearce, who has played against Jones in Germany's top flight. "He helps out in the attack a lot, runs a lot, helps his team a lot and he's a fighter. He's also blessed with a lot of other talents, so he's a great player." It is difficult to argue that Jones will not be an upgrade in the center of midfield for the Americans. While the U.S. seems deep at the holding midfielder position, a closer analysis reveals that perspective to be mostly relative to the dearth of options available elsewhere on the filed. With Michael Bradley's gradual evolution further up the field, no one has locked down the position for Bob Bradley's team. Pablo Mastroeni finally seems to have been put out to pasture, after two severely lacking performances against Costa Rica and Honduras. Maurice Edu looked to be coming into his own with Rangers before a knee injury sidelined him for the summer. Jose Francisco Torres has played well in limited action, but doesn't seem to have won Bradley's confidence, and is still very young. That leaves Ricardo Clark, who after being excluded from the original qualifying roster against Costa Rica and Honduras, managed to lock down the first team position for the Confederations Cup after a single good performance against Honduras (he was called up as an injury replacement for Edu). Clark then turned in a shaky outing, replete with giveaways and poor passes, against Italy in the opening game of the Confederations Cup, before being sent off -- albeit unfairly -- after just 33 minutes. Jones' consistency, on the other hand, has earned him call-ups for a handful of friendlies for the German national team, but he currently finds himself squarely out of the plans of national team coach Joachim Low. Known for his irascible character on and off the field, Jones has expressed public displeasure at the snub, and the new FIFA ruling gave him the opportunity to do something about it. "Now that I have a chance to play for America, I want to play for the States," Jones told The New York Times. "Now with the new rule from FIFA, they said I can play for the States. I am one-half American and one-half German and now I want to play for the U.S." To give a bit of further perspective on the quality of player Bob Bradley will now have available for selection, a top German soccer publication rated Jones among the best midfielders in the Bundesliga this season. "I played with Jermaine at Leverkusen, when we were both younger," Landon Donovan said of their time with the German club. "He is a very good player. He played a lot of games for Schalke this year and was a very good player for them." While Jones is highly rated on the field, he is also a controversial character in Germany. He has a reputation not only for tough play, but also for losing his temper. He earned nine yellow cards and two reds in 30 matches for Schalke this year. With the countdown to the World Cup in South Africa winding down quickly, there will be questions in the American camp about the effects of bringing a new player into the fold, especially one as controversial as Jones, on team chemistry.

U.S. men's schedule
U.S. vs. Brazil
Thursday
Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa
9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360 U.S. vs. Egypt
Sunday
Rustenburg, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
But an irritable defensive enforcer who brings some energy and emotion to the game might be exactly what is needed at the heart of the American midfield. A reliable ball winner stationed above the central defenders would give Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra more freedom to roam out wide and help out on the flanks, which have been exposed as vulnerable of late. And a classy destroyer in midfield will set up the midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Donovan and Clint Dempsey to foray forward with more liberty. It's also possible that Jones, who will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed by Germany, will bring a level of passion that lights a fire under his American teammates, even if his energy does sometimes get out of control. If playing for the United States gives Jones the outlet to expend that energy, and Bob Bradley can harness it correctly, the upside of his addition could be huge. At any rate, the Americans will be anxious to have a look at him. "It would be good to have him in camp and see how he does," Donovan said. "Any player that plays at that level should get a chance with the national team." Jones is likely to get that chance within a few months, as soon as FIFA sorts out the exact criteria for evaluating requests, and clears Jones' application for a change of national allegiance (initial reports suggest the process could be completed by October). In the meantime, American fans concerned about a defense that is suddenly looking less solid than usual can hope that help is coming, by way of Germany. Brent Latham covers U.S. Soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at brentlatham@ymail.com.

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