Editorial: de Jong’s Suspension Set a Precedent the League Needs to Uphold.

Earlier this season you may no doubt recall that Nigel de Jong caused an absolute maelstrom of righteous indignation and pitchfork waving for a dangerous challenge that saw Darlington Nagbe leave the field unable to walk under his own power, and the Dutchmen receiving a yellow card.  In the days that followed, there were cries for harsh discipline to be handed out. LA fans, and even Bruce Arena, complained that NDJ was going to be punished for his reputation and not the incident. I even contributed to a piece on this website calling for a significant suspension. Even knowing what we know now, mainly that Darlington Nagbe was more or less back to his usual self within a month, I still strongly believe that de Jong’s tackle was reckless and worthy of at least the three game suspension that he ultimately received.

Since then it’s become a bit of a rallying cry from LA Galaxy fans to express melodramatic outrage any time a foul is committed by declaring that it too deserves a three match ban. This ironic comment became so frequent and salty that it was extremely easy for me to tune it out. Just some salt from LA Galaxy fans that think the league is being super unfair to them.  Please.

However, the idea of discipline isn’t just to punish for the sake of punishment. There’s a hope that it will result in improved behavior, and in his limited time since returning from suspension and injury, Nigel de Jong has been very tidy in his challenges. When you consider that LA won basically all of their matches while he was out with suspension, Nagbe came back healthy and seemingly in an even richer vein of form, and the LA Galaxy fans at least SEEM to have gotten over their outrage, it seems like everybody got what they wanted in the end. Well, except for maybe Nigel de Jong, but what can you do?

After dismissing the ironic cries of the Los Angeles Galaxy fans for so long, I hadn’t really noticed that they had more or less disappeared, and so I was extremely surprised to discover that there were a couple of incidents this weekend which reminded me of de Jong’s transgression and now I’m curious to see if the offenders receive the same amount of punishment that Nigel did.

Before we get into the incidents themselves, I want to point out that obviously these incidents aren’t going to receive anywhere near the level of outrage or media attention as de Jong’s. Nigel de Jong is a high profile player on arguably the league’s highest profile team. That’s the cost of success and money neither of which I think fans would be willing to give up. Secondly, Nigel crushed the ankle of a rather well liked player in the league and US Soccer media - a player MLS undoubtedly told PRO to protect. Thirdly, Nigel de Jong DOES have a reputation for horrible tackles. While it’s perfectly fair to say that the league shouldn’t take that into account when doling out a punishment, it’s ludicrous to expect the fans and media to ignore it. That’s what a reputation is. That’s what a reputation does. Most people’s first reaction after hearing that Nigel de Jong would be playing for the LA Galaxy was a jokingly foreboding sense of, “whose leg he’s going to break”. It was extremely predictable that something like this would happen, and even though Nagbe wheeled away from the incident without permanent or season ending damage doesn’t excuse the recklessness of the tackle nor should fans of the Portland Timbers or USMNT realistically be expected to react reasonably. That’s just not what fans do.

All that being said. Fair should be fair, and MLS has a chance to demonstrate that. There were two particularly galling challenges that caught my eye this weekend. The first was from RBNY midfielder Gonzalo Veron:

Obviously, this tackle is completely unacceptable, and the referee got it exactly right when he showed Veron a straight red card. Nothing in this challenge could be considered incidental or mistimed. This was a two footed challenge aimed right at the legs of an opponent, that could only be extremely charitably described as gross recklessness. In a lot of ways it was even more dangerous than de Jong’s challenge. And while unlike de Jong - he was issued a red card during the match - I would hope and expect to see an additional 3 match suspension tacked on. We have an established precedent now after all. The second challenge, and one that I think is especially analogous to Nigel de Jong’s challenge was this yellow card challenge by Jordan Smith.

Jordan Smith's tackle is very reminiscent of what de Jong did. There is argument that you could make by saying that de Jong clearly got a bigger piece of Nagbe than Jordan Smith did of Alex, and Nagbe's injury was probably worse because his leg was fully extended as he attempted to continue his dribble. However, that seems to more of a matter of circumstance. Just like de Jong, Smith received a yellow card during the match, his challenge was easily as reckless, and the fact that the victim didn’t get quite as hurt shouldn’t really come into play here. I know that there seems to be an inherent sense of justice that if a player is badly injured, the offending player should also receive a lengthy ban, but the best way to get rid of the injuries is to punish the challenges that can potentially cause them, not just react after the severity of damage has been assessed.  

I’m willing to bet that Veron sees a suspension, but I’d be surprised to see Jordan Smith get three matches for essentially the same offense executed by de Jong. That’s disappointing to me. Nigel de Jong shouldn’t be a special case; his punishment was a stern warning and rightfully so. While it might not be right to paint a young player for the Vancouver Whitecaps with the same brush as you would a player with de Jong’s experience and reputation, failing to hold him to the same disciplinary standards would be a mistake for the league and the disciplinary committee that was instituted in order to protect players.

I don’t want Nigel de Jong’s suspension to be remembered as a harsh punishment, and I believe that reasonable fans of the LA Galaxy fans feel the same way. I just want the rest of the league to hold every player to that same standard.