Nigel de Jong: An Anticlimactic End to a Boring Story

The Nigel de Jong era in Major League Soccer is over. Nigel brought his reputation with him and left with it intact. Today will see many tweets sarcastically proclaiming disdain, many others will outright curse the man’s name. 'Good riddance' will be the prevailing sentiment around the league.

Though his time in Major League Soccer was short, it will mainly be remembered for the events of April 10, 2016 when frustration got the best of him, and he stepped over the ball crushing the ankle of Darlington Nagbe. I have never seen such a swift and overwhelming outcry about anything from MLS supporters. It was a case of the thing everybody knew and feared coming true. Here was Nigel de Jong, Chekhov’s Gun personified, going off just as we knew he would. Portland’s official Twitter account had an embarrassing Twitter spat with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Nigel de Jong was discussed at length by anybody involved with Major League Soccer. The incident was sensationalized, opined upon, and condemned harshly by many writers and publications. Many people even called for him to be kicked out of the league. The disciplinary committee came down ominously hard. De Jong only received a yellow card for the incident, but the MLS Disciplinary Committee  went ahead and tacked on a three game suspension. Bruce  Arena stood in front a crowd of reporters and angrily blamed the media for the circus and claimed that de Jong was only being punished for his reputation and not the incident. Bruce was halfway right. Blaming the media wasn't appropriate, but he was correct that de Jong was going to be treated more harshly because of his past reputation as a thug, a dirty player, and a career ender. That’s what a reputation is. Surely a manager as savvy as Bruce Arena knew this would happen. Arena knew very well that if his new midfielder lost control and injured somebody people would cry foul and scream, “I told you so!” LA went on to win matches in his absence, Darlington Nagbe missed a few weeks of soccer but came back seemingly fully recovered, and that could have been the end of that.

Then, on July 4th, we saw Nigel’s second noteworthy offense which was for recklessly tackling Blas Perez and getting the first and only red card of his MLS career. The foul was worthy of a sending off, but the disciplinary committee rightly showed a bit more restraint in only suspending him one additional match. That was it for disciplinary issues. If you ask fans a year or two from now, they will likely say that Nigel was a dirty player, a rough enforcer that set out to injure players, but the facts don't bear that out. Nigel finished the year with 3 yellow cards, 1 red card and 20 fouls committed. For the sake of comparison, Dom Dwyer (who is a striker) had 7 yellow cards and committed 56 fouls during that time frame.  The Dutchman actually suffered more fouls (28) than he committed.  

Some fans will claim that the press and the disciplinary committee ran him out of the league, but I doubt that's true. Nigel was an unwelcome house guest in every stadium except for the Stub Hub Center. Unlike other European stars with big name recognition, you didn't see any opposing fans screaming for his autograph or donning one his jerseys from AC Milan or Manchester City. He was booed roundly, but that would have been nothing new to him. We may never know if LA wanted him to stay or whether or not they were willing to pony up that big raise that was potentially going to kick in next season. Perhaps the money is better in Turkey. Maybe it will be easier for him to get back into the national team picture. Maybe he just didn't like Los Angeles.

The Galaxy will miss him in the next few weeks, but they'll probably be better off without him next season. If there was anything remarkable about the Dutchman’s brief stint in MLS it was how unspectacular his performances were. The role that de Jong plays is one that’s hard to quantify statistically, but de Jong’s show a consistent and decent MLS defensive midfielder. The Galaxy will likely be able to replace his production in the offseason and do it for less money and without all of the added baggage of de Jong’s reputation.

Major League Soccer is probably going to be better off without Nigel de Jong, and Nigel de Jong will be better off without Major League Soccer. It’s difficult for players to reinvent themselves. Supporters of the sport and the media that cover it tend to explain the blurry grey margins where so much of the game happens in broad narrative strokes. It’s easier to write. It’s easier to digest. The vindication of one’s own opinion is a rare and beautiful thing. When you’ve decided that Nigel de Jong is a filthy player, he will be even when he’s not. He will never be given the benefit of the doubt. He will never be judged by his intentions. Nobody will ever be able to say “There’s no way that was intentional, Nigel’s just not that kind of a player”. So he moves on to Turkey where he will be loathed and taunted by opposing fans and cheered and defended in earnest by those devoted to Galatasaray. His time in Major League Soccer was short and uneventful except for when it wasn’t. In 10 years he wouldn’t be memorable enough to even make a top 10 villains in MLS history piece. Maybe it’s appropriate to say good riddance. Maybe this is more of a “bye Felicia” situation. Perhaps his MLS legacy should be summed up like this. He was a decent player with a bad temper that wasn’t worth any of the fuss.