The United States team at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea has plenty of players with the potential to grab headlines. Union midfielder Derrick Jones became one of those players after a clutch defensive performance off the bench in Monday's 3-3 draw with Ecuador.
Jones and his teammates are now preparing to face Senegal on Thursday (7 a.m., Fox Sports 1). He could be in the starting lineup this time. If he is, the spotlight on him will only grow bigger.
Many Union fans have followed Jones' growth from the team's academy to Bethlehem Steel to the senior team. I've written about him a fair amount too. But there are probably plenty of soccer fans in Philadelphia and beyond who haven't been paying attention. This post is for them.
Call it a primer on the 20-year-old Jones' rise to prominence with the Union and the youth national system. Or call it everything you need to know in a hurry so you can get over your fear of missing out.
Let's start by answering a simple question: How can you be a 20-year-old playing in an under-20 World Cup? The answer is you have to be within the age limit when the two-year tournament cycle starts. You can be 20 years old and play in a tournament as long as you turn 20 in the same calendar year. The 2017 cycle began last year, and Jones turned 20 this past March. So he qualifies.
Now for Jones' backstory. In 2012, he and his family emigrated from Ghana to West Philadelphia. He was 14 at the time. He grew in Bantama, a suburb of Kumasi, Ghana's second-largest city. At one point, he played for the Black Stars' under-15 national team.
Not long after arriving, Jones' life changed in two big ways: He became an American citizen, and he started playing for the Junior Lone Star soccer club in Southwest Philadelphia.
Junior Lone Star's top team plays in the National Premier Soccer League, a fourth-tier semi-pro league in the American soccer hierarchy. The club's real purpose, though, is to give African immigrants to Philly a connection to the world's game in their new home town.
During the 2014 World Cup, Mike Jensen wrote this great profile of Junior Lone Star. This year, U.S. Soccer produced a movie and feature story on the club ahead of its debut in the U.S. Open Cup.
Junior Lone Star's players don't get to train on immaculate grass fields in well-kept suburbs. Theirs is an honest-to-goodness urban soccer life - the sort of thing that there isn't nearly enough of in this country's player development system. Union manager Jim Curtin noted that in a story last year by Aaron Carter.
"When you think of soccer in this country - I won't pull any punches - it's a privileged sport," Union manager Jim Curtin said last year. "There's no question about it. It tends to be, in the country, [not just] the Philly area, very structured, expensive in a lot of ways. Derrick represents an urban part of the city that's tough. Derrick grew up tough. There's no two ways about it. He has a great family, a tremendous family that's incredibly happy for him. But ... he didn't come from the Main Line. He wasn't born with [or] handed things. He's earned everything he's gotten."
The Union academy's scouts first saw Jones in a 2013 game between the Union's under-18 team and Junior Lone Star's under-19 team. Union academy director Tommy Wilson shared some vivid memories of that day with me last year.
"He reminded me immediately of [Manchester City star midfielder] Yaya Touré," Wilson said. "His ability to move the ball and how tall he was. ... Normally I'm so focused on my own team that I don't notice the opposition, but on this occasion I did, and I knew almost right from the first minute that here was a talent."
Jones was invited to join the club's youth teams, and made the move that November. In August of 2014, Jones enrolled in the Union's full-time high school.
"We took him out of that [home] environment because we thought we could accelerate his development by putting him in the academy and the school," Wilson said. "The change in him off the field as much as the change in him on the field was quite stark."
When the Union launched its minor-league USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel in 2016, Jones was the team's first signing. Jones had initially planned to play college soccer at the University of Rhode Island, but backed out of his commitment when Steel offered him his first professional contract.
"He was seen, and now he's doing all the hard work necessary," Steel coach Brendan Burke told me at the start of the season. "He's been phenomenal from the first day I've worked with him, and I think he has a very bright future."
That was in late March. In mid-July, Jones was invited to join the first team for a friendly against the English Premier League's Crystal Palace at Talen Energy Stadium.
A few weeks later, Jones was given a contract with the senior team. He thus became the first player to rise from the Union's full-time academy to the USL team to the senior team. It was a landmark moment that the Union rightly celebrated.
"Derrick’s progression through our system has been quicker than anticipated and it’s evident that he is ready for the next step of his career," sporting director Earnie Stewart said. "Derrick has now set the benchmark for every player in our youth system, that there is a pathway to the professional level, and that it is achievable if you remain committed to your goals."
Over the course of that summer, Jones caught the eye of U.S. under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos. In October, Jones got his first national team call-up, joining the U-20s for an exhibition tournament in England. He was also part of a December trip to Costa Rica ahead of CONCACAF's Under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament in February and March.
But Jones couldn't play in those official games because of FIFA rules on switching nationalities. Because he had played for Ghana's under-15s, he had to live in the U.S. for five full years before becoming eligible to play for the U.S. Jones cleared that barrier in just enough time to make the Under-20 World Cup roster.
Jones made his first appearance in an official game in the Union's 2017 season opener at Vancouver in March. It came in part because of injuries to teammates, but he also did plenty to earn it.
"I thought his passing accuracy was excellent. He kind of calmed us down when we needed to calm down," Curtin said of Jones' performance. "For a kid as young as Derrick and as inexperienced, I thought he really stepped up and grabbed a hold of the opportunity."
Jones played alongside Alejandro Bedoya, a U.S. national team veteran. Bedoya liked what he saw in Jones' combination of athleticism and composure on the ball.
"A lot of people here see the potential he has. He's got the size and athletic ability," Bedoya said. "He'll be the first one to tell you that I'm hard on him, and I give him tough love because I see so much talent in him."
Jones said Curtin kept his instructions simple.
"Enjoy the moment, have fun, play hard," Jones said. "It felt great. I think I've worked hard, and I've earned this spot, so I'm just going to keep going."
He has done just that. Jones played in eight games for the Union before leaving for the World Cup, starting in five. When Ramos announced his World Cup squad in early May, he gave Jones plenty of praise.
"I’m very impressed with what he’s been able to do with the first team at the Union," Ramos said. "He’s done a great job. And we expected that, because he’s a good player.”
Jones wasn't in the starting lineup for the Ecuador game. But when Arsenal-bred central midfielder Gedion Zelalem suffered a knee injury in the first half, Jones got his shot. He took it and ran with it, and now he's in a global spotlight.
"He did very well in the first game, and he got thrown into a very difficult position," Ramos said Wednesday. "He helped us. Not only did he fit in, but he made us better, and we're very happy with that. So there's a good possibility that Derrick will play the next game."
That possibility grew stronger when U.S. Soccer announced that Zelalem is done for the tournament due to that injury.
"His passing ability is second to none in this tournament and we'll miss that - he was running the team from his position," Ramos said. "Having said that, I believe in the players we have here, and we've already seen what Derrick Jones can do. We are confident that the team is ready for the next challenge."
So it seems that Jones' rise is set to continue. And the way things are going, that rise could continue for some time.
The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there for any questions about this post.