By Charles Boehm - WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 6, 2012) US Soccer Players -- It’s an old idea that communication is leadership, and Jurgen Klinsmann is doing a fair job of living out that maxim with his proactive entrées to the American soccer media. The latest was a breakfast meeting with journalists in the run-up to last week’s MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center. To his credit, in the US National Team boss faced up to a long-simmering frustration of some US fans... his seemingly implacable faith in Jermaine Jones.
The steely midfield enforcer polarizes opinion like only a select few of his Yank predecessors ever have. Some see a walking yellow-card magnet, an imprecise passer with the temperament of a ticking time bomb. Others, Klinsmann included, see an imposing physical specimen with enough drive, quality and experience to feature regularly for a trophy-hunting Bundesliga club advancing to the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.
As it turns out, Klinsmann also admires many of the traits that Jones detractors find so unsettling, in large part because they tend to have a similar effect on the enemy.
“He is one of those players that no opponent would like to deal with,” Klinsmann said. “There are players who, when you see them on the field, the opponent struggles with. It’s like, ‘Shoot, this guy again?’ Just his presence. His hunger.”
Jones began his ascendancy into German soccer’s elite at his hometown club Eintracht Frankfurt, a squad tagged with the nickname Launische Diva (Moody Diva) a few decades ago due to a propensity to beat top teams and lose to weaker ones. However, according to Klinsmann, there’s no such fussiness on offer from the tattooed German-American.
“It’s his willingness not to let go,” continued the US coach. “He is always ready for the grind. He grinds you until the 95th minute. That’s something, this mental presence that exists on the field, it’s not necessarily what you see when from the stands, when you see passes completed, duels won and all that. … It’s only something the players sense.”
That’s high praise coming from a World Cup winner, and a telling explanation for why the box-to-box midfielder stands alongside Tim Howard as the co-leader in US appearances in 2012. If you look a bit closer, you can also see the latest of Klinsmann’s efforts to educate his adopted country in the unofficial customs of the world’s soccer elite.
Observers tend to associate his tenure with talk of flowing, attractive soccer. There is that, but at the same time he’s also worked to instruct Statesiders on a facet of the game that doesn’t translate as well into American English, something that lives a bit closer to the sport’s darker arts.
Klinsmann got himself into some trouble for calling on the US to get “nastier” after they played well but were schooled 4-1 by a ruthless Brazil squad at FedEx Field in May. One veteran columnist called that a “repulsive” message epitomized by Jones, whose heavy tackle on Neymar in that game earned him a caution and seemed to extend his history of burly gamesmanship.
Loaded as it is, the word “nastiness” doesn’t quite work as a description of this often unpleasant, but usually unavoidable concept built on machismo, intensity and professionalism. The Polish-born Peter Nowak spoke of it as “fight” during his MLS coaching career, and south of the border they use a more anatomical reference.
“La diferencia mas grande entre EEUU y MEX contra Brazil? Huevossss” tweeted Monica Gonzalez, the Dallas-raised player who starred for and helped build the Mexican women’s national team, a few days after the game at FedEx.
Klinsmann’s trust in Jones makes it clear that as he attempts to lead the US Men to the next level, he recognizes and values the proverbial testicular fortitude engendered from a childhood spent on some of Frankfurt’s roughest, most drug-infested streets.
“Jermaine Jones comes from the worst neighborhood in Frankfurt you can imagine. But it drove him to where he is now,” Klinsmann told an audience of youth coaches at a US Youth Soccer workshop last spring. “Now is he always on the edge? Yep – because of his neighborhood. But I need to figure out, how can I now help Jermaine Jones so he is the best Jermaine Jones for us, with all his qualities? And how can I minimize the negative side that he carries with him because of how he grew up?”
If you perceive an air of desperation in the way Jones plays, a willingness to do absolutely anything in his power to cast aside the opposition en route to victory, you’re seeing the same thing Klinsmann does. For this coach, that’s far from a liability. It’s essential.
More from Charles Boehm: