The time has come for Jermaine Jones to be phased out of the U.S. team
If you wanted to design a player who would thrive on a United States national team -- a squad that prevails through equal parts athleticism, toughness and skill -- and succeed on the world stage, that man might look a lot like Jermaine Jones. And this goes beyond the fact that manager Jurgen Klinsmann constantly praises the midfielder and values his contributions to the squad.
Jones, who grew up in Germany but qualifies for the American side due to his serviceman father, played at the highest club level. He had two successful stretches at Schalke 04 in which he saw regular action in the Bundesliga and Champions League. He's big, strong and not afraid to tackle anyone on the planet. He has the ability to raise his performance during important stretches, most notably the 2014 World Cup, in which he was solid and occasionally spectacular in all four games. He displays moments of awe-inspiring skill, like his curling goal against Portugal in Manaus.
Jones is not without his faults. He fouls too aggressively. He can spray passes. He's overeager, going where he wants, too often trying to make a play when he should sit back and stay in formation. He and Michael Bradley, another player who thrives on freedom, haven't always meshed well in their central midfield partnership. He berates teammates for not being where he thinks they should be. He's far from perfect.
Still, his pedigree, success and skill made him one of the most important American players throughout the course of the past six years. Some of his best games have also been the best U.S. performances. When he plays right to the edge but doesn't cross over it, he embodies the strongest parts of the red, white and blue program. In 2016 and for the near future, the U.S. won't be the most skilled team on the field, but they can succeed by pairing the talent they have with effort, heart and hustle.
But for a variety of reasons, the time has come to start moving on from the midfielder.
First, there's his age. Jones is 34 now and will be 36 at the 2018 World Cup. Frank Lampard and Giorgos Karagounis were the only two midfielders that old in Brazil. Now, consider the miles he puts on his body due to his all-out style and the rash of injuries he's suffered. Projecting into the future gets mighty dangerous mighty quick, but there's at least a decent chance he won't be able to play in Russia. While succeeding two years from now isn't, and shouldn't be, the only thing on Klinsmann's radar, it is, and should be, the most important goal. At worst, giving Jones' minutes to a player or three now helps develop a viable alternative in the future.
Then, of course, there's the reality that Jones will be suspended for the March qualifiers against Guatemala due to his six-game suspension. The ban doesn't begin until he signs with a club, so he could be available, but that would mean that he played just two games since the end of the 2015 Major League Soccer season, which is also not ideal.
The international soccer cycle rarely presents a better opportunity for a manager to move to a new generation than the one Klinsmann has right now. The head coach is forced to look elsewhere for two important but easily winnable games. Trying to find a replacement for Jones against Los Chapines, a squad ranked 91st in the world that lost to Trinidad and Tobago at home, is like throwing a player into the deep end only to discover the water is 6 feet deep.
And unlike some other positions, central midfield offers plenty of depth from which the American manager can choose.
Danny Williams, finally healthy and enjoying a strong season at Reading, can lace shots from 25 yards and wouldn't survive in the rough and tumble Championship without the ability to tackle. He's just 26 and has paired well with Bradley in the past.
Mix Diskerud has a scoring touch, continues to get chances and can be far tougher than most fans believe. Klinsmann praised him for getting "physical" in the 1-0 win over Canada. He doesn't want it like Jones does, but perhaps last year's lost season for club and country will light a fire. He's also more effective in the middle than he has been out wide.
The Portland Timbers' Darlington Nagbe and the New England Revolution's Lee Nguyen are more offensive-minded than Jones, but their attacking prowess might combine well with Bradley. Columbus Crew SC's duo of Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp both show promise in more central defensive midfield roles. Add Alfredo Morales, Perry Kitchen, even Kellyn Acosta and some others, and the competition for Jones' spot grows.
For understandable reasons, Klinsmann wants Jones on the field. At this point, he and Bradley are the two best central midfielders on the American roster, full stop. The time when that's not true, however, is rapidly arriving, and the period to prepare for that coming eventuality is now. Jones will be a strong addition to the Copa America Centenario roster and deserves to play in the tournament. His fearlessness against South America's strongest sides will benefit the U.S. team.
After that event, though, the focus should be about moving on, about the younger players adopting the positive elements Jones brought to the field rather than watching the man himself personify them with less and less success. The U.S. has won big games without Jones, including fixtures against Germany and Mexico, and they should start doing it again sooner rather than later.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.