Less than 24 hours after a humiliating defeat, D.C. United is being linked with Galatasaray midfielder Nigel de Jong. The Washington Post’s Steve Goff is reporting that United is “deep in discussions” with the 32 year old, who has 81 caps for the Netherlands. With the transfer window closing on August 9th, those talks would have to progress fairly quickly for a move to happen.
When contacted, United said they could not comment on players who are not under contract. On top of the de Jong rumor, Goff is also reporting that United held initial talks with England forward Wayne Rooney, who eventually opted to stay in the Premier League and sign with Everton.
The Black-and-Red have had a clear need for a substantial upgrade at defensive midfield since last season, and the failure to address the position this past offseason is one of the most significant problems facing MLS’s bottom side. Strictly on paper, de Jong more than addresses those issues. With that many caps for the Netherlands, plus a resume that includes Ajax, Manchester City, AC Milan, Hamburg, and Galatasaray, de Jong has played at the highest levels of the game. United’s roster doesn’t have a single player with even a sliver of his time spent facing the world’s best.
However, de Jong would be an extraordinarily controversial signing. His most famous moment as a player was a kick to the chest of Spain’s Xabi Alonso in the 2010 World Cup final. His tackles have left Stuart Holden and Hatem Ben Arfa with broken legs, while his time with the LA Galaxy saw him receive a three-game suspension from the MLS Disciplinary Committee after a tackle that left Darlington Nagbe needing to leave the stadium in a wheelchair. He also received a straight red card later in the season before leaving early, as the Galaxy were not going to be able to take on his back-loaded contract while also keeping other Designated Players in the fold.
In other words, de Jong is the kind of player who MLS’s own website briefly mocked with a “highlight” video that was simply his worst tackles and all the bookings he picked up. He has earned a worldwide reputation as a dirty player, mostly due to his propensity for reckless, full-throttle, studs-up lunges into tackles that he was destined not to win cleanly. It’s not so much that he sets out to foul people, but that he does not appear to care whether he does or not.
So what’s the appeal? de Jong is a true #6 who can act as a shield for the defense, which is something United has been hugely deficient at all season. While he’s been nicknamed “The Lawnmower” for covering so much ground, de Jong’s experience should see him be able to act as a ball-winner without running himself out of position in the manner United’s current crop of defensive midfielders tend to do.
On top of that, his technical ability should guarantee far fewer turnovers and a better ability to connect the pieces for United when they have the ball. In the current Turkish season, de Jong has completed over 90% of his passes, while he was above 87% during his stint with the Galaxy in 2016. Since 2009-2010, his lowest passing accuracy figure is 84.9%, which would still blow any United central midfielder out of the water. Throw in a better first touch and instincts to take up smarter positions, and you’d almost certainly have a more fluent Black-and-Red side.
The appeal is clear. A smarter ball-winner with a higher pedigree who would instantly be among MLS’s most accurate passers? That’s exactly what United needs. However, de Jong’s history of dangerous tackles goes beyond being a classic midfield “hard man” and into the realm of being a player that fans will have significant misgivings about, successful on the field or not.
The combination of de Jong and Rooney are indicators of what sort of splash United wants to make heading into Buzzard Point next season. While there have been allusions to focusing on moves that fit the Luciano Acosta profile (i.e. young players capable of starting at good clubs in CONMEBOL and who could be seen as cornerstones for years to come or players who increase in value before being sold on), de Jong and especially Rooney are moves designed as much to get attention as they are to improve the on-field product. Both players are over 30, and both players come with the Premier League tag that still carries major weight when it comes to drawing media and sponsor attention.