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MLS Review: L.A. struggles

MLS Jul 7, 2014
Read
 Posted by Doug McIntyre
Jun 14, 2014

This land is my land

ESPN FC's Jeremy Schaap and our panel of soccer experts examine the story lines ahead of the United States' first World Cup game against Ghana.

Jermaine Jones struggled with his identity until he found whom he was missing.

Stepping into the elevator, Jermaine Jones could feel his heart in his throat. Not much can rattle the 6-foot, 170-pound German-American, but the man waiting for him in the lobby did. Jermaine hadn't seen his father since he was 6 years old -- and now he was in Miami to meet him. He wasn't even sure he'd recognize him. It'd been so long. Twenty years long. The elevator doors closed, and floor by floor, Jermaine was closer than he'd ever been to the moment he had thought might never come.

Just two months earlier, Jermaine had spoken to his father for the first time since he was a child. His wife, Sarah Jones, had tracked him down as a surprise for Jermaine's 26th birthday. "I told him, 'If you want to call your father, here is the number,'" Sarah said. "He couldn't believe it." Father and son have talked regularly since then and planned to meet in Miami when Jermaine was on winter break from his club team at the time, FC Schalke 04. His father, a Mississippi native, said he would make the trip from Southern California.

The elevator slowed to a stop, and the doors opened. "I get out, and I'm looking, looking," Jermaine said. Then he spotted him. How could he not recognize him? This man who looks so much like himself, the same nose and mouth. The same furrowed brow and intense eyes. This man who's also looking for him.

Jermaine collapsed to the floor, crying.

Six years have passed since that day in Miami, and Jermaine Jones has cemented his place on the U.S. men's national team. Of the five players born and trained in Germany who helped the U.S. qualify for a seventh consecutive World Cup in 2013, Jones is the undisputed alpha. He's a heavily tattooed, hard-as-nails defensive midfielder who, since 2011, has picked up more yellow cards at the club level than all but four players in Europe's four elite leagues. The 32-year-old's smashmouth style makes him a favorite of Jurgen Klinsmann's. The coach knows how important Jones' Bundesliga and Champions League experience will be to the United States' fortunes in Brazil. "Our opponents have a lot of respect for Jermaine," Klinsmann said. "He's a guy who will never give up."

Not everyone sees it this way. Many U.S. fans view Jones, now playing for the club Besiktas in Turkey, as a liability, a World Cup-changing red card waiting to happen. They point to his slew-foot tackle of Brazilian superstar Neymar during a 2012 friendly or to the elbow he threw at a Costa Rican defender's head in a qualifying match last year. "Teams need different leaders," U.S. keeper Tim Howard said, "and I think because of the environment Jermaine's been bred in, he's certainly not afraid to speak his mind."

Jermaine pulled himself off the lobby floor. His father, Halbert Jones, was crying too. Unsure what to say to each other, they hugged in the lobby. Halbert didn't know what to expect from this meeting with his first-born son. He feared his son would harbor resentment.

Jermaine has only faint childhood memories of spending time with his father, then a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army. He remembers car rides on his lap to the base outside of Frankfurt and his dad calling him Junior, their shared middle name. "Jermaine was really sensitive when he was little," Jermaine's mother, Barbara, said. "If his dad said, 'Listen, you sit there and be quiet,' he would start crying."

He was so young, just in kindergarten, when his father left his pregnant German mother, who then had to care for him and his toddler sister alone. And there in that hotel lobby, Jermaine still didn't know what broke up his family. All he knew was what his mother told him so many years ago: "Sometimes relationships between people who love each other don't work out," she had said.

For Jermaine, soccer was always going to be what saved him. His mother moved the family to Bonames, one of Frankfurt's most dangerous neighborhoods. While the kids around him started selling drugs and committing crimes, Jermaine focused on helping his mother raise his brother and sister -- and he played lots of soccer. He was a natural goal scorer with endless stamina and a mean streak he's yet to shake. The older kids would pick him for their teams; local hustlers would bet on his games. At 14 years old, Jermaine joined Eintracht Frankfurt's youth football academy. He received a stipend of 200 deutsche marks (about $100) a week, half of which he gave to his mother. Five years later, he signed a pro contract and went on to represent Germany at the 2001 FIFA U20 World Cup. "I was happy to play for Germany," Jermaine said, "but I'm not the typical German. I always listened to American music. I feel the American side more. And ever since I was young, I wanted the chance to play for America."

Jones has won 42 caps for the United States.

Growing up, it was enough for Jermaine to think that his mom and dad just didn't work out. But as a teenager, he really began to miss his father. "That was the moment I said it's bulls--- your dad is not here," Jermaine said. At 20, he got his father's initials tattooed on the back of his neck. He contacted the U.S. military to find Halbert, but that led nowhere. Jermaine was out of options. He couldn't help but wonder, "If my father sees a Jermaine Jones playing for America in the World Cup, maybe it would lead somewhere."

There was one problem with this thinking: Since he played in that U20 World Cup, he was no longer eligible to switch teams. The onetime forward then focused on breaking into Germany's all-world squad as a midfielder. And he did, briefly, and played three friendlies for the three-time World Cup winner in 2008 under Jogi Loew, Klinsmann's successor. But when FIFA changed its rules in 2009, allowing dual nationals who hadn't appeared in senior-level competitive games to switch allegiances, Jermaine didn't hesitate. It might have started as a boyhood dream to play for the U.S., but the reality was he also wanted to play in a World Cup. His chances were better with a developing U.S. squad than an established German one.

A shin injury kept him out of the 2010 World Cup for the U.S., but heading into Brazil, Jermaine has established himself as part of the squad's spine, which also includes 2010 veterans Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Howard and Jozy Altidore. But that's not to say his integration into the U.S. team was always smooth. "Because he grew up in Germany, maybe in the beginning he was more seen as a German kid than an American one," Klinsmann said. "But he's proved that he deserves to be part of this program, and his fighting nature is extremely important to us."

As the evening went on, the subject finally came up: Why did he leave? Halbert started telling Jermaine about the secret he and Barbara had kept for two decades. How he had been involved in a high-stakes drug trafficking ring and was arrested and charged with smuggling and distributing cocaine and heroin. That he was sentenced to 52 years in the Military Correctional Complex in Leavenworth, Kansas. The young couple, married just eight years, had felt they had only one option: They would file for divorce, and the family would stay in Germany. Jermaine's mother promised she would never tell the children, and she never did.

Halbert tried to apologize to his son. He said he never would have thought he'd put his family in that situation. That he was naive then, stupid. Released from prison after about eight years, he had also tried to find Jermaine, but it proved more difficult than he imagined. Since then, he'd remarried, had two children and started driving big rigs cross-country to support them.

Jermaine told his father, "It happened. It's OK. We look forward now. I'm happy that you're here, that my kids can see their granddad. That's more important than what happened years in the past." The two haven't talked about the past since. They've just found other things to talk about and other things to do. Every time Jermaine vacations at the home he bought in Los Angeles, he includes Halbert in the plans. And just as Jermaine had hoped, his five children get to spend time with their grandfather.

Jones is expected to start the United States' World Cup opener versus Ghana on Monday.

Other relationships have also been forged or mended since that time. In 2011, Halbert visited Germany with his wife for the first time since his arrest to meet the son he never knew, Jermaine's brother, Kevin, and to reconnect with daughter Natasha. "Finding my father was the best birthday present I ever had," Jermaine said. "And not only for me but for my sister, my brother and my kids too."

That same year on Father's Day, Jermaine scored his first goal for the U.S. and celebrated with a salute. He knew Halbert was watching at home. "It was my way of giving my father a little gift," Jermaine told reporters after the game. "He was a soldier: It was a sign of respect for him."

But perhaps the greatest impact of all these colliding worlds will be felt in Brazil when Jermaine and the U.S. open play Monday. "I plan on going to Brazil for the first week," Halbert said.

And when Jermaine Jones steps onto the field outfitted in red, white and blue, everyone will know exactly who he is.

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.