By most accounts, Nigel de Jong is a nice guy when he’s not at work.
Polite, humble, kind to children and puppies. Just ask him.
“Off pitch,” De Jong said this year, “I’m a really cool dude. Just laid back.”
But when he steps onto a soccer field a transformation takes place, like Bruce Banner turning into the Incredible Hulk. Just ask Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who had to be pushed to the locker room in a wheelchair last weekend after a vicious studs-up tackle by De Jong.
That won De Jong a fine and a three-game suspension from Major League Soccer’s disciplinary committee, a ban a Galaxy spokesman said is the longest in club history. It’s also a penalty Coach Bruce Arena says owes its severity to De Jong’s reputation as a player who pushes the limits of the rulebook and fair play, infamy that made De Jong attractive to the Galaxy in the first place.
“If that was any other player in that tackle, it would not have received the hysteria that it has,” said Arena, whose team beat the Houston Dynamo, 4-1, on Friday in its first game without De Jong.
Through a Galaxy spokesperson, De Jong declined to discuss his suspension. But since coming to MLS in February, he has repeatedly spoken about the weight of his reputation — one built on a succession of broken legs and injured opponents — and his intention to continue with the same physical style of play.
“If I adjust my game, then I can’t be the player that I am so I don’t back down for nothing,” he told the Corner of the Galaxy podcast. “I’ve just got to deal with it. ... You just have to be the player that you can be.”
And that player, for better or worse, is the one the Galaxy wanted.
After a 2015 season that ended in disaster, thanks in part to a defense even some players called “soft,” the Galaxy purposely went in search of rugged defenders.
“We weren’t physical,” A.J. DeLaGarza said. “I don’t think any team was afraid to play us. Physically afraid, like ‘we’re going to get hit.’
“Not in a dirty way, but in a way that you’re just aware of that.”
So an organization that had a well-deserved reputation as a clean team, one that won the MLS Fair Play Award three years ago and earned just four red cards total since 2012, went out and signed a guy whose nickname is “The Destroyer.” Now the newly gritty Galaxy, with 13 yellow cards in six games, is on pace to crush the franchise record for cautions in a season and could threatened the league record of 77 yellow cards set by the Montreal Impact last season.
De Jong, and hulking central defender Jelle Van Damme, are the poster boys for that new attitude. In one infamous seven-month stretch in 2010, De Jong broke the legs of two opponents and delivered a kung fu kick to the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final. De Jong didn’t get a red card for any of those plays but that doesn’t mean he got away scot-free: Last December the respected French sports daily L’Equipe named him the world’s most violent active player while a Spanish website once ranked him among the 10 dirtiest of all-time.
Privately, many in the Galaxy camp felt the Nagbe tackle was unnecessarily reckless and violent. And though Arena, Galaxy President Chris Klein and at least one player reached out to MLS officials and asked for leniency, neither De Jong nor the players union appealed the suspension.
That was probably a wise decision since De Jong’s reputation will cost him the benefit of the doubt whenever he’s involved in a questionable play, which Arena believes happened last week.
In the immediate aftermath of the foul, which earned De Jong only a caution from referee Allen Chapman and left Nagbe with nothing more than a fright and a sprained ankle, many at StubHub Center thought the yellow card was a bit lenient, but not really an issue. In their postgame news conferences, Arena was not asked about the foul and Portland Coach Caleb Porter addressed it only tangentially.
Television viewers got a different take though, with Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas immediately calling the challenge “a horrible tackle.” After Fox showed multiple replays another analyst, Stuart Holden, revisited the play, saying it “makes me feel sick.”
“There is absolutely no excuse for that type of challenge,” said Holden, a former U.S. national team midfielder and one of the players who had his leg broken by De Jong in 2010. “We don’t need it in the game. It’s horrific. It’s horrible.”
De Jong, who apologized to Nagbe as he was being wheeled off the field, called the play an accident.
“It was a pity,” he said. “It was never my intention to hurt him.”
But the opinions of Lalas and Holden held sway and by Monday morning social media were rife with calls for De Jong’s suspension.
A huge fan of American football, the one with the helmets and shoulder pads, De Jong offered a mild-mannered defense of his playing style in his introductory news conference two months ago.
“It’s not about the reputation,” he said. “It’s about the winner’s mentality. Because at the end of the day it’s about winning. There’s never been a problem in my career. For me the best thing to do is just be on the pitch.”
That won’t happen again for another three weeks. And when De Jong does return, you can bet the Galaxy will be hoping for less Bruce Banner and more Incredible Hulk.
After all, that’s what they paid for.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter: @kbaxter11