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The first thing you probably think of when you read the name "Nigel de Jong" is some sort of overly physical play.
It could be when he broke Stu Holden's leg, or when he broke Hatem Ben Arfa's leg. Or it could be when he tried to put his foot through Xabi Alonso's chest in the 2010 World Cup final. Or it could be from early in the 2016 MLS season, when he drove his studs into the shin of Portland's Darlington Nagbe. Or maybe it was the two-footed, scything foul from behind on Ulises Dávila in the second leg of last year's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals.
For some strange reason I can't quite divine, de Jong has earned a rep as a butcher. His nicknames are "The Destroyer" or "The Lawnmower."
That's not all there is to his game, of course. De Jong can also complete a few passes, he hits a decent free kick, he is generally disciplined positionally, and he works hard. But let's not gloss over this main point: His effectiveness on the field is directly proportional to the amount of fear he strikes into players on the opposing team. When that ability to strike fear is limited or removed entirely, de Jong struggles.
We saw as much last season, during his brief tenure with the LA Galaxy. The challenge on Nagbe somehow didn't earn de Jong a red card, but it sure did earn him a three-game retroactive ban from the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Upon being so chastened, he turned into a significantly less effective player: He was gun-shy and struggled to figure out how to be a reliable defensive presence without the physical intimidation.
There is a level of proof in the numbers, though beware of sample size, of course:
- LA with de Jong before the Nagbe tackle: 2-1-2, +4 GD
- LA with de Jong after the Nagbe tackle: 2-3-8, 0 GD
And here's what they looked like overall:
- LA in 2016 with de Jong: 4-4-10, +4 GD
- LA in 2016 without de Jong: 8-2-6, +11 GD
There is a reason ex-Galaxy coach Bruce Arena happily let the former Dutch national team player walk away from Carson in the middle of last season. Although he may have been a "good locker-room guy," he was no longer an asset on the field for LA, and in half a season became something of a millstone.
All that makes Monday's report that D.C. United are considering offering de Jong a Designated Player contract so baffling.
United need a defensive midfield upgrade, to be sure, and even a de-clawed de Jong would be that in the short term. Plus as Ozzie Alonso and Michael Bradley showed in last year's MLS Cup, spending a DP roster slot at d-mid actually makes a lot of sense.
But de Jong wasn't close to DP level in MLS even when surrounded by a cadre of international-caliber players in LA. What will he be when surrounded by measurably less talent in D.C.?
More to the point: Why are United in the market for a 32-year-old defensive midfielder whose best years are clearly behind him, and whose in-game effectiveness is likely to take a drastic nose-dive in the age of Video Review?
That foul on Nagbe, for which he received only a yellow in the moment, would be a straight red; the foul on Davila, for which he received only a yellow in the moment, would be straight red; the fouls on Holden, on Ben Arfa, on Xabi Alonso, even arguably on Kip Colvey last March... all were yellows, and all would be subject to review as would literally dozens of other challenges de Jong unleashed upon opponents throughout his career. Many would end up with de Jong's team playing a man down for the rest of the game, and without his services for at least another game (for some of those fouls, significantly more) beyond that.
If D.C. were trying to save their playoff hopes and just lost their starting, veteran d-mid, I could see the point of signing de Jong to a six-month contract with a 2018 option. It would arguably be worth it to just sort of hope that an old dog can learn new tricks while leaving room for the necessary offseason roster overhaul.
But United realistically have no playoff hopes left for 2017 (they're currently 14 points out of a playoff spot), and one of the lessons they should've learned from this year of misery (5W-14L-3D record), is "Hey, players sure can get old pretty quick, so let's not tie up too much of our hopes with the over-30 crowd." De Jong, of course, will be 33 before next season begins.
De Jong's already proven what he is in MLS, and it's hard to imagine how that evaluation ends with a "Yes, let's spend a DP slot on exactly that."