BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Jermaine Jones blended right in, chatting with Steve Cherundolo and Michael Bradley during a warmup jog and finding his new American teammates with smooth, effortless passes.
It was as if he's been part of the U.S. midfield for years.
A year after switching countries, the German-born Jones has finally joined his new national team at training camp this week. His long-awaited debut could come Saturday night, when the Americans play Poland in an exhibition at Soldier Field.
"It's like changing clubs in Germany," Jones said after training Tuesday, with Cherundolo translating for him. "The team has done a good job of welcoming me and integrating me into the squad. It's been easy to feel comfortable."
Born in Frankfurt to an American father and German mother, Jones lived in the United States until he was 7 and would visit each year during his vacations. But the 28-year-old has spent most of his life in Germany, and played for Germany three times in exhibitions. He was among coach Joachim Loew's final roster cuts for the 2008 European Championship.
A few years ago, those appearances, short as they may have been, would have been enough to prevent Jones from ever wearing a U.S. uniform. But FIFA changed its rules last year, and players with dual nationalities are now free to switch sides at any age — so long as they haven't appeared in an official game. (Think World Cup or European Championship.)
"I wanted to play for America earlier but I wasn't able to because of the rule," Jones said. "As soon as they changed it, I was excited and wanted to get to camp. ... For personal reasons, I wanted to play for the United States."
And the Americans were more than happy to have him.
The holding midfielder, who starts for Schalke, plays bigger than his 6-foot-1, 172-pound frame. Strong, physical and fast, he isn't afraid of hard tackles or taking a shot when the opportunity arises.
Jones isn't the first player to don the U.S. uniform after spending most of his life in another country. David Regis, a member of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup teams, was born in Martinique but was eligible to play for the United States because his wife was American. Thomas Dooley, captain of the U.S. team at the '98 World Cup, also had an American father and a German mother.
"When he's on the field, you know he's on the field," said Cherundolo, who has seen plenty of Jones with Hannover in the Bundesliga. "He's got a good presence about him and he's tough. He's somebody to deal with. I think he'll fit in well with this team because this team is about athleticism and counterattacking, and I think that fits into his game and his strengths."
Had Jones been available for the World Cup, he could have started in place of Ricardo Clark, whose sloppy play led to a goal by England's Steven Gerrard in the U.S. opener and whose giveaway created the opening goal by Ghana's Kevin-Prince Boateng in the second-round loss that eliminated the Americans.
But a hairline fracture in his left shin sidelined Jones all of the 2009-10 season. He got his first U.S. call-up in August for the exhibition against Brazil, but turned down the invite to stay and train with Schalke ahead of its opener.
"I thought right away, 'I think he can help us,'" said Cherundolo, a U.S. starter and Hannover's captain. "You never know how somebody will integrate into a team. This team accepts everybody and it's already accepted Jermaine. But you never know how it works on the field until they get there. So there's always that little question mark in the back of our heads, but I think he'll fit in with this team."
It looks like it.
Playing with the starters for most of Tuesday's practice, Jones appeared to already have that innate sense of where his teammates are. It's a quality the best players have, but it usually takes months — years even — to develop such seamless timing.
"It's a different style of soccer we play here than what he's used to in Germany," Cherundolo said. "I don't expect it to all be finished within one camp, or two days of training. It's going to take a few games, but I think he'll be a good addition to the program."
While Jones may be more comfortable speaking German, he speaks English well enough to bond with his new teammates — so much so he's already being included in the practical jokes, the surest sign of acceptance in team sports.
As Jones and Cherundolo talked to reporters Tuesday afternoon, captain Carlos Bocanegra sauntered over and stood silently behind them. When Bocanegra finally asked if he could ask a question, Jones laughed and Bocanegra walked off, smiling.
"Right now he's happy just to be healthy again," Cherundolo said. "He's excited to be on the field again, and every training session with the team is good for him in building confidence, building more fitness so he's able to bring his strengths to the squad.
"He's physically an asset to any team," Cherundolo added. "He puts his stamp on the game."