Jermaine Jones has earned millions of dollars during his long soccer career, but all the money in the world couldn’t buy him his dream. Finally, in June, that dream came true.
During the second U.S. match of the World Cup, with the Americans trailing the favored Portugal team by a goal, a corner kick bounded to the German-American midfielder. Jones steadied it on his left foot, set himself and swung his right foot—neon pink sneaker and all—straight toward the goal. The ball sliced past a frozen Portugal defender and two of Jones’ teammates, curved around the flat-footed Portuguese goalie and made an audible “thwack” when it hit the twine on the back of the net. The score was tied. It was time to go crazy.
“You say to yourself ahead of time, ‘If I score a goal, I’ll go celebrate like this or that,’ ” Jones says. “But then you score and all the emotion goes out. And I saw my boys, and everybody’s like, ‘Go freak.’ ”
Jones wagged his tongue, his skinny dreads flying as he leapt into the air, mobbed by teammates. It was a goal that was years in the making. For Jones, it was the right place at the right time.
Two months later, New England Revolution president Brian Bilello slipped away from a cookout he and his wife were hosting at home. Ducking into a side room, he joined a video conference between Major League Soccer officials, who were conducting a blind draw to determine whether the Chicago Fire or the Revs would get the chance to pay Jones $4.7 million for the rest of the current season and 2015. MLS commissioner Don Garber selected an envelope at random, and just like that, the Revs won the rights to the German-born player, who had spent his entire soccer career in Europe. Bilello spent the rest of the afternoon as “the worst party host of all time,” making calls to the owners, coaches and staff to celebrate and coordinate Jones’ arrival. New England paid millions more than the organization had ever spent on a player, but they had their guy. For the Revs, it was the right place at the right time.
A third crucial moment arrived in late November, during the first of two playoff matches against the New York Red Bulls. The Revs were tied, and Jones was running as fast as he could down the pitch. Teammate Teal Bunbury crossed a pass toward Jones, who was in perfect position to slide toward the goal and poke the ball into the net with the inside of his left foot. The 1,200 diehard Revs fans who’d traveled more than 200 miles for the game went wild. The goal won the match and helped propel the team into its first MLS Cup appearance since 2007, reviving the on-pitch and off-pitch fortunes of one of the soccer league’s founding franchises—one that’s hoping to bring a soccer stadium closer to Boston. For the Revs, and for Jones, it was the right place at the right time.
“I would say it was like a dream come true since I was a kid,” Jones, 33, says of his electrifying World Cup performance, one that was indeed a long time coming. He set his career in motion by enrolling in an elite soccer academy at age 14, but an injury derailed his shot to play for Germany in the 2006 World Cup. Then a rule change allowed Jones to join the American team in time for the 2010 World Cup—but after Jones switched allegiances, injury struck again, delaying his dream once more. As the 2014 competition inched closer, Jones was all too aware of how quickly another injury could sideline him. So when he finally stepped onto the pitch in Natal, Brazil, on June 16, in front of 39,000 fans, he took time to enjoy the moment.
“It was an amazing atmosphere. I think that’s what every soccer player dreams of, right?”
Advancing further than most pundits expected, the U.S. men’s national team scored record TV ratings and attracted thousands of people to viewing parties at City Hall Plaza and in other major cities across the country. The game against Portugal drew 25 million viewers, more than the World Series, the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup Finals. Americans, especially the coveted 20-something demographic, were finally embracing the sport that was once seen as a strictly overseas phenomenon.
Jones parlayed his World Cup play into a lucrative opportunity to join the MLS, but he was still unsure where to play. Both the Chicago Fire and the Revolution were willing to pay the highest salary, setting up the blind draw.
“It was in my mind that I’d go to Chicago. Then my agent told me no, and he told me all the rules. He said, ‘We have to see, and maybe you have to go to New England.’ So, I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait. I’m new to this agreement. Give me some time.’ So I went back to my family [in LA], and we knew it was a long distance. But we really came fast to a decision. We said, ‘That’s the rules, and we have to take it like it came.’ ”
Bilello quickly fired off an email to Revolution owner Jonathan Kraft, who had seen his organization’s fortunes rise and fall since MLS’s inaugural 1996 season. Twelve years ago, Kraft says, no city wanted an expansion soccer team, but during the past year cities and investors had lined up to pay more than $100 million for a team and $200 million more for a stadium. And eight-year TV deals inked in May guaranteed the league $90 million a year in rights fees.
Boom times had arrived for MLS, but the Revs—who previously had recognizable players such as Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman—were missing a marketable franchise player. That all changed when Kraft, gathered with his son, his brother and his dad in the kitchen of his father Bob’s Cape Cod home, looked down at his phone and saw the email from Bilello: “We won the draw.”
“We were all pretty excited. We really wanted him, and the money wasn’t an issue for us,” Kraft says. “During the past couple of years, we had come close on a couple of occasions. And at least one of those players would’ve been, in terms of star power, as big as any player who played in our league, including David Beckham. And it just didn’t work out.”
The news of Jones’ deal spread quickly to the Revs’ locker room and forward Charlie Davies, who already knew Jones from the national team. When Jones arrived, Davies wasted no time giving him a tour of the city, grabbing lunch on Newbury Street, taking him to a BC football game and dining at Barcelona Restaurant & Wine Bar in Brookline. Jones soon settled into an apartment in the Seaport and found a barbershop that would twist his signature dreads every 10 days.
On the pitch, Jones was fitting in just as well. As a midfielder, he could impact the match even when he wasn’t scoring. “Once he showed up, the energy changed and the concentration changed,” Davies says. “Practices felt so much better because he really gave us the confidence that we could make a run at the MLS Cup.”
The Revs won their first four matches with Jones in the lineup, and the midfielder assisted on a goal in each of the first three matches he started. When he missed the first half of a match against Columbus, the Revs lost. In the locker room afterward, Jones sidled up next to some of the younger players. As a World Cup veteran, he had led by example during his first month with the team, pushing them in practice, staying longer at training. Now, he needed to assume the role of a vocal leader.
“I told them, ‘Look, this is a game where if you play like shit and don’t do what you have to do, and everyone feels comfortable, you will lose games. But if you’re focused, there are not a lot of teams who can beat our boys. We have quality, but we have to trust each other, and everyone has to do his work in his position. If everyone does that, we’ll come to the finals,’ ” Jones recalls. “It was nice to see after that game that everyone started to do what they had to do.”
The speech helped spark a 7-match unbeaten streak that landed the Revs in the Eastern Conference Finals against New York. After winning the first match of the series, thanks to Jones’ goal, the Revs returned to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro to a record crowd of 32,000 needing only a tie to advance. Two days earlier, Davies had brought Jones and a couple of other teammates to his in-laws’ for a Thanksgiving meal with all the fixin’s. But the crew wasn’t satisfied simply shooting pool, watching football and pigging out on the eight different types of dessert. They wanted a spot in the MLS Cup. After Davies connected on two goals to give the Revs a 2-2 tie, they had it. During the postgame celebration, Jones grabbed the trophy and sprinted toward the supporters’ section behind the goal. He climbed the stand where the cheers are led and started posing for selfies with the fans.
“That’s just Jermaine. That’s who he is. He’s like, I’m getting the trophy and I’m going up there,” Bilello says. “It wasn’t me saying, ‘Tell Jermaine he’s gotta go up there.’ Or our PR person saying, ‘It’d be really cool if we had a picture.’ He has a true desire to interact with the fans and show them his appreciation.”
The buzz built during the next week, and by the time the Revs took the pitch in Los Angeles, they had finally earned some time in the spotlight at home. The MLS Cup, which the Revs lost in overtime 2-1 to the LA Galaxy, earned a 3.1 TV rating in the Boston market. While Jones and teammates spoke of pride in the 2014 campaign and expectations for next season, something even more important was brewing in Boston. Mayor Marty Walsh and the Krafts were engaging in stadium talks.
“They see value for what a building like this could do for a community. The prior administration did not share the same view, so we weren’t able to make progress in the years before Mayor Walsh’s administration,” Kraft says, referring to a city stadium in general while staying mum on the specific site, rumored in The Boston Globe to be along Interstate 93 next to the West Fourth Street bridge in South Boston. “Given the passion of the Boston sports fan and the quality of the stadium we would build, I’d like to think we would become the model for the league in terms of the total package for a franchise.”
Bilello looks at city stadiums used by teams such as Portland and Seattle and sees the value of a venue that’s T accessible. Size is another consideration. When the MLS began, nearly every team was playing in cavernous football stadiums, but now the Revs are among only a handful of teams in the league to do so. In the city, they’re confident that they could fill a smaller dedicated soccer stadium with 20,000 seats and a more appealing atmosphere for fans. The Revs’ average attendance this season was more than 16,000, and they’ve already sold more season ticket packages for 2015 than in 2014.
For Jones, who has one year remaining on his contract, any stadium would be built long after he’s left New England. He still yearns to play closer to his wife and five kids on the West Coast, wearing his affinity for LA not just on his sleeve but in ink on the center of his tattoo-covered torso, and that may happen as soon as the 2016 season.
“It is a problem that they’re so far away. I’m a family guy, and I want to see my wife and my kids every day. It’s not easy, but who knows? It was my position to come to New England, and I’ll work hard for that 1 1/2–year contract and do my best. After that, I will sit down and discuss,” Jones says. “It was nice for me that I didn’t go to a team like Toronto or Seattle or LA. I went to a team in New England that until that moment had ups and downs. It was a young team, and from the beginning that I came, we got on a good roll.”
He does know what an urban stadium would mean for the city and the organization: “People are really interested in soccer, and you can fill the whole stadium with a good crowd for every game. For me, the time is too long. I think it is five or six years away, but maybe I’ll come watch it when it’s finished. That will be good.”
Wherever or whenever a stadium is built, the foundation was laid with the acquisition of Jones. The same year his World Cup dreams came true, he ignited interest in U.S. soccer and the Revs. While his play has drawn rave reviews, it’s his timing that’s never been better.