By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 15, 2016) US Soccer Players - The US soccer bubble found itself filled with drama, dispute, and debate this week. The reason was Nigel de Jong's rugged challenge on Darlington Nagbe in the LA Galaxy vs Portland Timbers MLS match on Sunday.
The league's Disciplinary Committee finally offered some measure of closure on the matter when it released its ruling on Friday, sentencing de Jong to a three-game suspension and an unspecified fine. That punishment won't end the discussion but it appears, from this column's viewpoint, to have struck the proper balance between protecting players from recklessness and recognizing the speed, intensity, and commitment of the modern game.
While there are many interesting angles to this situation, one of the most fascinating subtexts for me is what it's revealed about some peoples' views of Nagbe, and top American talents in general.
It's strange and ironic happenstance that this incident took place between two men who carry so much more than their uniforms and boots onto the field every match. Nigel de Jong is the prototypical “hard man,” a name synonymous with the sport's violent underbelly. A long history of full-blooded tackles and injured opponents in his wake has given him an aura of cold-blooded, calculating menace – not to mention an impressive resume of team and individual success. Here it’s certainly worth saying that by all accounts, de Jong is a kind, conscientious person off the field who makes friends wherever he goes.
Nagbe, on the other hand, is one of the most watchable and widely loved players in MLS. He's one of US soccer's “great young hopes” who actually panned out. For many of us, Nagbe's a tantalizing vision of what the American game can be. Blessed with prodigious physical gifts as well as excellent technique honed by childhood exposure to both structured and unstructured play, he is just the type of player this country's soccer system wants and needs to produce more of.
He also happens to be a balanced, easygoing personality who struggled to impose himself on games earlier in his career. He'll readily admit that he's not a firebrand type. For many fans, that only makes him more likeable, fueling that anger towards de Jong and the Galaxy this week.
Others, however, point to that absence of the proverbial “piss and vinegar” as an indictment of Nagbe's mentality and an obstacle to the realization of his full potential. In that regard, a vocal minority see him as emblematic of the “soft” nature of American players, especially young ones, who wander unprepared into the cutthroat environment of the global game's highest reaches and struggle to survive, whether at top clubs or against elite national teams. Where other nations equip even relatively frail specimens like Lionel Messi or Arjen Robben with twinkle toes and crafty diving tricks, we send out genial idealists.
Obviously, there are some holes in this theory. Resilence and work ethic are trademarks of US teams and players alike. Superior mental strength has fueled the national teams' greatest successes on the world stage. Think of the 2002 World Cup, the 2009 Confederations Cup or the now-legendary squad that turned so many foreign heads with a fourth-place finish at the 1999 U-17 World Championship in New Zealand. It's also true that recent history has been littered with much-hyped American youngsters who simply failed to launch under harsher spotlights.
Over the winter, LA brought in de Jong and another European with “hard man” credentials, Jelle Van Damme, for the express purpose of adding steel to a side that fell way short of expectations down the stretch last season. In some ways, it was an understandable move by coach and general manager Bruce Arena. When that imported steel cut a chunk out of one of the United States' most cherished midfielders last weekend, however, it only intensified the finger pointing in all directions.
Just what is the value of a de Jong or a Van Damme? Time will tell as to whether they can help the Galaxy's dinged dynasty regain the heights. In the meantime, are they bringing a dose of intensity and professionalism to teammates and adversaries alike? Perhaps they're the sort of jerks we need as MLS seeks to climb the ladder towards true international competitiveness. Or, maybe they're little more than loose cannons who present a danger to anyone wearing opposition colors, regardless of what league they play in.
The Nagbe skeptics are right about one thing. Even as the sport leaves the “hard men” behind amid a steady evolution from strength to skill, the US will continue to meet ruthless, cunning antagonists like de Jong on its path to fulfillment. It's players like Nagbe are the best hope of surmounting the obstacles that his predecessors could not.
Therein lies the challenge for Nagbe, who fortunately sustained only a modest ankle injury and not the broken leg that many initially feared as he left the the StubHub Center pitch in a wheelchair.
As he continues to grow into a regular USMNT contributor and a legitimate MLS superstar, he – and others like him – must face the game's enforcers and hatchet men, and beat them with his feet, his mind, and his heart. He has to keep raising his game, and honing his wits and instincts, and taunt the hacks with his sheer, relentless quality, even when they do threaten with brutal and dangerous force.
If he and his peers can vault this hurdle, then perhaps the sky really will be the limit.
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