There will be a time at the start of today’s game when Sami Khedira receives his first pass from Jerome Boateng or one of the other German defenders in a dangerous position on the American side of the field. Khedira will be thinking of turning to take the ball upfield, or laying the ball off to the wing and sprinting forward for a one-two, but he will not do any of these things because, before he can yell, “Aufpassen!”, Jermaine Jones will take him out.
Simply put, for the USMNT, Jones is the key to this entire match against Germany. That Jones finds himself in that position must come as a shock even to him. Unlike the young crop of German-Americans Jurgen Klinsmann brought into the mix, Jones is already 32 years old. This will—in all likelihood—be his one and only Cup. But if there was ever a team he was prepared to play, it would be Nationalmannschaft. Having spent the majority of his career in the Bundesliga and played with the German national team when he was younger, Jones has matched up against nearly all of ze players on this German side squad. He has seen the playbook; he knows the dance steps; absorbed other sports cliches.
His vital role in central midfield as part-enforcer, part-distributor, and part-goal scoring threat cannot be over-emphasized (although I will try!). On defense against Germany, Jones job will be simple: act like the Night Watch’s giant wall axe in Game of Thrones and mow down any German midfielder (Khedira, Lahm, Kroos) or striker (Ozill, Muller, et al.) who dares pass over his turf. Then step over the crumpled body laying prone on the pitch and collect the ball.
On offense, his responsibilities are more complex, as—if things go right—he will be the one starting counter-attacks by hoovering up said balls. Against Ghana, Jones seemed uncomfortable having the Brazuca at his feet once he’d won a tackle, hastily passing it off to Bradley, Beckerman, Bedoya, or other teammates whose names don’t start with B. But in the Portugal match he used the Portuguese’s expectations of his lack of comfort on the ball against them, often faking a pass to free up space and then exploiting the room he’d created. I wouldn’t expect him to score many more goals this tourney—to that extent he’s sort of like an American-football fullback, from whom any direct offense output is a bonus—but just the fact that he’s shown a willingness and ability to be dangerous with the ball means the Germans can’t afford to play off him. They’re going to have to respect his shot, freeing up Bradley, Dempsey, and the wingers in the meantime.
Supposing that the Germans play in their traditional, attacking 4-3-3, and the US plays the same style they did against Portugal, the game will be won or lost in the midfield. Shutting off the pipeline that Khedira and Lahm provide and getting back to help the US defenders so that Ozil can’t face the goal and create is an enormous challenge. Luckily, Jones is an enormous man. And never will his presence loom larger than it will for 90, 95 (please, Lord, no more than that!) minutes this afternoon.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.