CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy's makeover is complete with the arrival of Nigel de Jong, whose first week in Southern California has everybody associated with the club excited about what's to come.
The Dutch midfielder, who was officially introduced Tuesday afternoon at a StubHub Center news conference, will add needed bite in the middle, where he'll be paired with Steven Gerrard – a pretty good combo just about anywhere on earth.
It's a path he'd hoped to follow – he's an Americaphile who has long desired to play here – and he says he's ready to do all he can as the Galaxy seek success in the CONCACAF Champions League knockout phase and a fourth MLS Cup title in six seasons.
“I think [America offers] the total package,” said de Jong, who has played in Holland with his hometown Ajax Amsterdam, in Germany with Hamburger SV, in England with Manchester City and in Italy with AC Milan. “If you see what America, what the United States can offer you, apart from football: I mean, it's the lifestyle, it's the sports culture, it's the way people think about sport in general. It's not only soccer. You've got to many sports out here, and the sports culture's so big, and I always wanted to experience that sooner than later.
“I've played in four different countries already, so my next step was always [going to be] America. I've always wanted to finish my career off in America, and how good is it that I can be here in my prime and be a big asset and a big part of a team like LA Galaxy, I think the biggest team in America?”
De Jong said he's watched American sport since childhood – he's a huge NFL fan and favors the Pittsburgh Steelers – and that the country's sports culture “helped a lot” with his decision.
“The way you guys embrace sports is way different than in Europe,” he said. “I kind of like that. And I've been here already a couple of times, for holidays but also for my rehab [at StubHub Center following an Achilles' tendon injury three years ago]. So I had a good feeling about how the culture really is, and that's why I said always to myself, 'If there's an opportunity for me to come to America to play soccer, I would do it.'
“The opportunity came, and that was first on my list, even though I got other offers from European clubs. This was always in my mind.”
De Jong, 31, a veteran of two World Cups and two European Championships, arrives after a difficult half-season at AC Milan, where he saw limited action, and he's still building fitness. He's trained with LA three times and played into the 54th minute of Saturday's 1-0 preseason victory over the San Jose Earthquakes in Las Vegas. He estimated he's at about 80 percent of his capabilities with eight days until Galaxy's opener, a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg against Mexico's Santos Laguna.
He's already impressed his teammates and coaches, who believe his physical approach to the game – along with that of Belgian center back Jelle Van Damme, another newcomer and de Jong's Ajax teammate from 2002 through 2004 – can transform an LA side that underachieved last year.
“[De Jong brings] physicality that we haven't had and a player that's a true No. 6 in front of the back four,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “He's dangerous. I think people are going to be scared of him. It's a threat we haven't had. And over the past couple of years, we've kind of said that we've been pretty soft at times, not fouling and not getting into tackles. We've got now guys that can definitely do that and aren't afraid of it.”
De Jong definitely “brings bite,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said.
“But the real answer [to what de Jong adds to the group], from my perspective, in a very, very short time, is that he's an intelligent, highly tactical thinker on the field,” Sarachan added. “And with that much experience, even in the game the other day against San Jose, he showed a quality of leadership and control and a tactical awareness that is something that is sorely needed, and that excites me.”
Head coach Bruce Arena says it was “important” for the Galaxy to add a grittiness to their game.
“I think that's something we missed last year, last couple of years,” he said. “We [now] have some experience players that bring that to us each and every day.”
De Jong has a reputation for physical play, and in response to some brutal tackles over the years and that infamous boot to Xabi Alonso's chest in Holland's loss to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, some critics have called him a thug on the field and one of the game's dirtiest players.
“I don't really care what people say,” de Jong said. “It's not about the reputation, it's the winner's mentality you have to show on the pitch, because at the end of the day, it's about winning and getting those three points in your pocket. For me, [the naysaying is] not a problem, it's never been a problem in my career.
“The best for me is to be on the pitch. I'm not really a talker outside the pitch, so I do my best on the pitch, let my feet speak, and [that's] the best way I can do for this team.”
The opportunity to play next to Gerrard excites him.
“That's not bad, is it? That's not bad at all,” he noted. “I'm very happy and delighted that I can play alongside him. I mean, everybody knows Stevie G – that speaks for himself, his name alone. We played many times against each other, but now at the end of our careers, we can play with each other.
“So it's going to be a dynamic duo. I think it's going to be very good, and I hope that we come as far as possible.”