FOXBOROUGH — DeJuan Jones grew up idolizing Lionel Messi while playing soccer in East Lansing, Mich., never thinking he would someday make a living as a defender.
The switch from forward to the back line has paid off, though it happened only because interim Revolution coach Mike Lapper made the move early in the 2019 MLS season. The change coincided with a marked improvement in the Revolution’s fortunes, sparked by the arrival of Bruce Arena, and Jones has not looked back.
But Jones was reluctant to go defensive during his initial Revolution training camp in 2019 in Marbella, Spain.
“From the first week of preseason, [Lapper] was just like, ‘You’d make a great outside back,’ ” Jones recalled. “And I’m like, ‘No, stop saying that. Don’t keep saying that too loud.’ ”
Early in the season, though, Lapper was promoted from assistant to head coach, replacing Brad Friedel, and, sure enough, Jones found himself starting at left back. First there was an exhibition against Chelsea FC, then an MLS match against D.C. United, in what turned out to be Lapper’s last game before Arena took over.
Four seasons later, Jones has established himself as a key to the Revolution’s success, while earning two US national team caps.
“I’m definitely a defender now,” Jones said. “I’ve always trained with both feet and I feel very comfortable on both sides. The national team recognized that, and the last camp I played on the left and right back.”
As a right-footer, Jones has had to adapt to the left side with the Revolution (7-3-3, 24 points) but he could have a chance to start on the right in Saturday’s game against the Chicago Fire as Brandon Bye (shoulder) recovers from injury.
“DeJuan has shown improvement this year,” Arena said. “Tactically, definitely. He’s always had the physical qualities, but tactically he’s better, and that’s encouraging. One-on-one defending he’s fine, but off the ball, he’s had to be a little better and he’s gotten there.
“He’s becoming very well-rounded and he adds to our attack, which is a real plus. He’s worked hard on his left foot, as well, and he’s getting there, but I wouldn’t say he’s two-footed.”
For the US national team, Jones lined up at right back against Serbia (2-1 loss) and Colombia (0-0 tie) in January. But his shutdown defending style, stamina, and strong attacking runs are assets on either side.
“At Michigan State, wingers had to defend quite a bit, and playing basketball, I always took pride in defending,” Jones said. “So it was a transition, but like I say, I always took pride in my one-on-one defending. So it was more understanding the position — positioning was the toughest thing to adjust to.”
Jones’s sport might have been football (American style) had he followed the footsteps of his father, Demetrius, who captained the 1983 Western Michigan team.
“I never played football,” Jones said. “It was during soccer season, so I never put the pads on. My dad wanted me to follow my dreams, and he saw how good I was in soccer. He didn’t really know the sport but he started to pick it up and enjoy it as well. He never forced me and let me make my own decision.”
Jones considers himself a Manchester United supporter, but he found his soccer role models in Spain.
“My family didn’t watch too much MLS; dad’s an NFL guy,” Jones said. “I used to watch La Liga highlights at my grandparents’ house. When I was 8 or 9, I found out about Messi, Ronaldinho. Messi is why I train with my left foot so much, trying to do his skills.”
After Chris Tierney’s retirement in 2018, the Revolution sought left-foot replacements at left back. But after going through several candidates (Gabriel Somi, Edgar Castillo, Alexander Buttner, Christian Mafla), Arena has used Jones as his Opening Day left back starter every year.
“Bruce really encourages a lot of creativity and really lets players express ourselves out there,” Jones said. “He holds me to a really high standard and I think he’s pushed me. Even when I have a good game, he tells me, ‘You could’ve passed a little bit better.’ He’s always there for me, to keep pushing me, and not settle.
“I feel that I’ve learned a lot since he’s gotten here. Obviously, the position change I had to adjust to, but I feel have a better understanding and now it’s more about being a leader out there, communicating, helping out the young guys, being more consistent in my performances.”
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.