Marcel de Jong knows it’s a “big year” for the Canadian national team – and he wants to be a part of it.
When the 28-year-old fullback found himself on the outs with FC Augsburg in January, he set his sights on a move to MLS. Part of his motivation was remaining in the national-team mix – so when an opportunity arose with Sporting Kansas City, de Jong jumped on it.
“At my club in Germany, I wasn’t playing very often,” de Jong told MLSsoccer.com over the phone. “It was a good moment for me to change clubs and try to find a club where I can play every week and do well.”
After a pause, de Jong added a bit of traditional Canadian humility.
“I’m not saying I’ll play every week, but [a better] chance of playing.”
Born in Newmarket, Ontario, just northeast of Toronto, de Jong debuted in the Canadian program with the Under-17 squad back in 2003. He joined the senior national team in 2007 and has made 31 appearances for Les Rouges since then. During that time, he also racked up a wealth of experience in some of Europe’s top leagues, making 115 appearances for Roda JC in the Dutch Eredivisie and 67 appearances with Augsburg in the German Bundesliga.
So as the Canadian team emerges from a painful, two-year-long rebuilding process, de Jong finds himself a de facto leader, both on and off the field.
“It’s a role that I can get used to,” said de Jong. “Playing in the European top leagues, I think it brings a role for me to fill, to help the younger guys. I think I’m ready for that.”
De Jong has been playing in Europe since he was a boy, having joined the youth academy of PSV Eindhoven at the age of 9. His deal with SKC – signed after a preseason trial – is his first with a North American-based club. Thus far, he’s impressed by what he’s seen.
“The club is really professional,” said de Jong. “Everything is organized, down to the details. You just have to show up for training, and the rest is taken care of, so it’s really good.”
He earned his first start for his new club on Saturday, a 3-1 road loss at FC Dallas. If de Jong can keep hold of a starting spot with SKC, it will put him at full match fitness ahead of this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Canada have been drawn into Group B alongside Costa Rica, El Salvador and Jamaica – a challenge that de Jong is ready for.
“It’s not easy. Of course there’s no easy teams for Canada, because we’re not a top-five team,” he said. “It’s a good group for us, with a lot of opportunities to go through to the next round. I think if we do well and we do what everybody’s expecting of us and what we expect of each other, then we can go to the next round.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented: Canada found itself lined up against the same three opponents at the 2009 Gold Cup and went on to win the group. De Jong scored Canada’s second goal in a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica in that tournament.
While the Ticos’ recent ascent will make earning a similar result all the more difficult for Canada this time out, they will have one advantage – playing on home soil, at BMO Field in Toronto.
“It’s nice playing at BMO, especially at the Gold Cup,” said de Jong. “It should be a good experience for us and a good home crowd.”
In addition to the Gold Cup, Canada are also embarking on their long qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, beginning with a home-and-away series against either Dominica or the British Virgin Islands in June.
De Jong knows that, above all, the team will be looking to eliminate the bitter memory of Canada’s last World Cup qualifying campaign, which ended with an ignominious 8-1 defeat in Honduras.
“We were close to getting to the next round, and it was unfortunate for us,” he said. “We learned from that, we think, and we know now what to do. It’s a new group, building up a lot of experiences. But we have to do better – we will do better – than the last World Cup qualifiers.”