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Jermaine Jones may have formally announced his retirement last week, but in his heart and in his mind, the 36-year-old former U.S. World Cup standout moved on many months before.
The LA Galaxy declined his option following last season, and outside of a single appearance in July with the fourth-tier Ventura County Fusion, he hadn’t played a professional game in almost a year when he finally got around to making it official.
Jones could’ve kept playing. He had offers to from clubs in the U.S. and overseas, but uprooting his wife and five children, who’ve called Los Angeles home since moving from Europe four years ago, was a nonstarter. So, after discussing it with family and friends, he decided to embark on the next stage of his working life immediately. He’s now well on his way.
“I want to establish myself as a coach,” Jones told Yahoo Sports in an exclusive interview shortly before the news broke. “That’s what I think we’re missing right now in America. We have the players, we have the talent, but we don’t have the coaches who can teach them. I think that’s our biggest problem, especially with the youth.”
Player development has long been a hot topic in the U.S., and in the 10 months that have passed since the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the conversation has reached the boiling point. Jones offers a more well-rounded perspective on the subject than most.
The son of an American serviceman, Jones was born and raised in Germany. He graduated from Eintracht Frankfurt’s youth academy and eventually moved to Schalke, where he made 27 Champions League appearances, more than any other American. He spent a dozen years in the Bundesliga in all, and also played in England’s Premier League, in Turkey, and with three teams in MLS.
In other ways, Jones is an unlikely steward for the next generation of American stars. He wasn’t always the most coachable player over his 18 professional seasons. He occasionally clashed with managers, and he tended to roam out of position during his six years with the USMNT. Yet Jones is also an unabashed fútbol junkie, and he’s thrown himself into his new profession the way he used to launch his studs into opponents’ ankles.
Jones received his UEFA B coaching license earlier this year, taking advantage of a program that fast-tracks ex-pros. He also earned a B license from the U.S. Soccer. Since May has been at the helm of local club side Real SoCal’s under-19 academy squad, quietly gaining the experience he needs to qualify for the more advanced credentials required at the highest level.
“When I first started I was a little bit lost,” Jones said. “You begin to see the game in a completely different way. There’s so much work that you don’t think about as a player. Coaches never rest. In the beginning it was really scary, but then you get into it. And when your team wins it gives you so much excitement.
“Sometimes I’m thinking I want to go out and kick the ball,” he continued. “I still love the game. But coming from such a strong soccer world in Germany, I see a chance to jump in there with my experience and help young players in America.”
According to former teammates, Jones has plenty to offer. “I have no doubt he’s going to be successful as a coach,” said Graham Zusi, who played alongside Jones at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. “Jermaine is incredibly passionate about this sport, and he was very much a vocal leader on our team. I know he’ll bring that passion over to the coaching side of things.” Said U.S. keeper Brad Guzan: “As much as he was, at times, a bit undisciplined, he was a competitor.”
Jones joked that having five kids between the ages of 5 and 17 gives him a head start when it comes to managing different personalities. He always noticed how his own coaches treated their players, and he now has a greater appreciation for the challenges they faced. “When they work with kids, as their kids get older, guys change,” Guzan added.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Jones’ habit of speaking his mind. For all the progress the USSF’s development academy system has made since its debut in 2007, Jones doesn’t hesitate to remind his players that it still lags well behind the world’s more entrenched talent mills. His team learned as much in July, when they were routed by both Hertha Berlin and Mexico’s Atlas at the International SilverLakes Cup, a U-19 tournament hosted at a facility co-founded by former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann called Jones and asked his squad to participate when another club dropped out. Over three games, the lone point came against the Galaxy.
“It’s a jump up in quality,” said Jones, who spends much of his time teaching his players how read the game, a skill he believes Americans need to improve. The foreign teams were superior in other ways, too. “You see it in their body shape,” Jones said. “They’re way bigger than the American kids.”
Until the U.S. development system catches up to its global competition, Jones will advise his best players to prioritize opportunities with overseas clubs rather than signing with MLS.
“Christian Pulisic played kids soccer in America,” Jones said of the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund and USMNT star. “He really learned his game in Germany. And if he had stayed here, he would not be that Christian Pulisic he is now. That’s the truth.”
It’s also not a knock on MLS. In spite of his own connections across Europe, Jones sees his coaching future on these shores. He’d like to move up the ranks methodically, perhaps working with the youth national teams first, then moving on to become assistant in MLS or with the USMNT.
“In general, my next step is to help to grow the game here,” Jones said. “Maybe one day I can become the head coach of the United States. That’s definitely my goal.”
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• Veteran USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones announces retirement