Jermaine Jones is a hard man. A battler, an enforcer in the holding midfield role, he is the first line of defence when an attack breaks down. He does the USA’s dirty work. It’s a post that comes without much fanfare. Little kids hardly ever hang posters of bruisers on their bedroom walls. And when attention does come, it’s usually the wrong kind of attention, from referees, digging around in their pockets for cards.

“A lot of times on a football pitch, it’s about who’s intimidating who, who’s controlling who,” said Jones’ USA coach, the former German playing legend Jurgen Klinsmann. “When you play against Jermaine, you know who’s in control.”

Jones’ path to the heart of the Stars and Stripes midfield is full of the kinds of twists and turns that build or break character. He lived in the States, in Chicago and Mississippi, until the age of seven with his father, an African-American soldier who fell in love and started a family while stationed in Germany. When his parents split, young Jones returned to Germany with his mother.

He grew up fast and father-less in Bonames, a tough suburb on the outskirts of Frankfurt. Football became a way out, and by the age of 21 Jones was a top prospect in the German game. But when he moved to Bayer Leverkusen, discipline problems emerged. He partied with friends who moved with him from his old neighbourhood. He looked to be squandering his talents. His fouls and his card count overshadowed his potential. A future with the German national team, whom he represented at U-20 level and in a handful of senior friendlies, evaporated.

When one of us trips up, the other guy is right there to jump in and dig him out. This is what makes us strong.

Jones on what makes the States strong

On the club side, though, Jones developed into a star during his twenties. He moved to top side Schalke in 2007, where he became a mainstay, a crucial figure playing regularly in the Champions League and in the upper tiers of the Bundesliga. Fouls, cards and suspensions kept coming for Jones, but he matured. He was learning his trade. 

In 2010, a door opened to a world he’d left behind long before. A FIFA rule change meant that Jones was able to switch his national team allegiances and line up for USA. “This is something I always wanted to do since I was young.” Jones, now 31, told FIFA.com. “First I talked to Michael Bradley [USA team-mate]. His father [Bob] was the coach then. I met with him and he said he wanted me in a USA jersey. I was thrilled and I was ready.”

It was a chance for Jones to reconnect with his roots, and also to possibly play in a FIFA World Cup™, a dream he had abandoned. His first US cap came in August of 2010, at the age of 28. “Things are different here in CONCACAF,” he admitted with a smile, accustomed to the comforts of the European game. “It’s hot, the fields are bumpy and the culture is totally different. But we can qualify for the World Cup. The fields will not be bumpy in Brazil, I assure you!”

Jones’ arrival in the US team wasn’t totally smooth. Certain fans considered him a mercenary, a hired gun. But when his countryman Klinsmann took over the US reins two years ago, the culture changed. Everything changed. With the team now reigning CONCACAF Gold Cup champions, well out in front of the pack in Brazil 2014 qualifying, the only noises coming from the fans are shouts of joy. “We are all proud to have Klinsmann as a coach. Under him, it is clear that America is going in the right direction. It’s a better team now,” Jones added, noting that the side hasn’t lost a qualifier since their opening-match loss to Honduras many months ago.

Brazil in his sights
Jones and Co face Costa Rica this Friday with the possibility of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup with three matches to spare if the day’s other two Hexagonal games end in draws. It is far more likely that the side will ensure qualification a few days later, in Ohio, against arch-rivals Mexico.

The US have won their last 12 games, currently the longest winning streak in football and just shy of Spain’s record run achieved in 2009. For Jones, the consummate workhorse and energy-man, the formula is simple. “This team is like a family,” said Jones, now a father of five. He bought a house in Los Angeles near his coach Klinsmann and reunited with his estranged father. “This is a team full of guys who like to get dirty, to work so hard. When one of us trips up, the other guy is right there to jump in and dig him out. This is what makes us strong.”

There is a pause in the conversation as Jones searches for an example. “The Bosnia game,” he snaps, thinking back to last month’s amazing 4-3 win over their hosts in Sarajevo. “We started the game badly. We were off the pace and we were down 2-0 at half-time. For a lot of teams, that’s it, it’s over. But we went to the locker room and looked at each other. We listened to our coach and we came out and won in a tough place in front of a tough crowd.” Another pause hangs in the air. “This is a real team.”