As Steve Goff reported Sunday night, D.C. United are close to signing Nigel de Jong, a man who needs little by way of introduction in most soccer circles. His accomplishments are really rivaled only by the baggage he carries.
World Cup finalist with the Netherlands. Leg-breaker. UEFA Champions League. Dirty player. Among the best defensive midfielders on both sides of the ball in the last decade. Career-ender.
Like a lot of United fans, I instinctively recoiled when I read the news linking the club to de Jong. He broke Stu Holden’s leg! He sent Darlington Nagbe off in a wheelchair! He effing ninja kicked Xabi Alonso! He’s 32!
He’s the kind of player whose skill and level of play anyone can appreciate but who many fans, myself included, wouldn’t ever be able to root for. At least as long as he plays on another team. But his antics go beyond even the potential “he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole” kind of player. He’s reached the point that even the most passionate supporters of a team wouldn’t be able to lend him their full voice, even if (foibles aside), he’s exactly the sort of player their club needs.
And, setting those considerable foibles aside for a moment, de Jong is that for D.C. United. His game looks custom tailored to fit the gaping hole in the Capitalino midfield. He can play as a lone #6, freeing Ben Olsen to line Ian Harkes up higher up the field in a selectively pressing 4141 rather than the reactive 4231 that’s been used during this losing streak.
de Jong would make the defense better by shielding the back line, and he’d help the attack just by not losing the ball. Even more, by actually being a strong passer. His hard and efficient tackling are something United has missed since Marcelo suddenly remembered this past winter that he’s not Davy Arnaud.
But there are those damned foibles. The seemingly inevitable moments when de Jong’s hard tackles become reckless and dangerous. When he stops playing on the razor’s edge and seems to start wielding it instead. And, perhaps more so even for an inglorious position like defensive midfield, those moments are the ones that people remember.
If the comments on Jason’s story breaking down the news are any indication, there’s a subset of fans who would literally disown a team they support if it were to sign de Jong.
But, not unlike how a lot of United fans will always root for a Chris Pontius without wanting the Philadelphia Union to succeed or for Nick Rimando to do well but for Real Salt Lake to lose, it’s possible to support a team but not all its players.
This compartmentalization happens all the time in sports: Fans of the USMNT who don’t like Geoff Cameron’s particular brand of politics can still root for the Red, White & Blue; Baltimore Ravens fans who don’t condone murder or obstruction of justice or domestic violence still back the team that employed Ray Lewis and Ray Rice; many fans of the Washington NFL team support it while calling for the name to change.
All of which is not to say I’ll be rooting against de Jong if he does come to RFK. I’ll root for him not to add to his infamy, and I’ll root for him to help the team. If he does something indefensible, I’ll call it out, as I did on Filibuster when Marcelo stomped on Derrick Jones with both feet back in April.
This is so dirty from Marcelo Sarvas. Holy hell man. pic.twitter.com/Q6eni7Jx2V— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 2, 2017
That’s not the only tackle Marcelo’s had in Black-and-Red that, but for the grace of an inch, could have ruined a career. We haven’t seen, and I haven’t personally experienced nearly the same compunction about him as about de Jong. Maybe we should.
Or maybe a player going off the rails and causing injury from time to time, as bad as it is, doesn’t rise to the same level as some other faults. How would we feel if D.C. United signed a known domestic abuser? A convicted tax evader? A player who has gone after his own teammates in the locker room?
Maybe an earned reputation as a dirty player is as bad as those things. I’m not sure.
If I come off as conflicted on the possibility for a de Jong signing, it’s because I am. He would undoubtedly help make D.C. United a better soccer team, even if only for the short term. But he’d also bring a higher-than-usual potential for a catastrophic injury to another team’s player. I don’t think de Jong looks for opportunities to hurt players — there are too many teammates who have had his back for for that to be the case — but I don’t know that he particularly cares, either.
If de Jong manages not to hurt anyone — which he’s done for stretches of his career — he’d be a valuable bridge to the Chris Durkin era we all hope will lead to milk and honey (and trophies). But all it takes is one bad tackle to mar this signing, with the player’s foregoing reputation, and that makes this signing a risk.
I think Jason put it best and most succinctly in the comments to his news piece:
I feel like this could be a good Twilight Zone episode. Establish animosity towards de Jong, and then aliens or scientists let us build the DM the team needs. We do so, and then they unveil that it’s de Jong. Hard zoom to DCU fans yelling "noooooooooooo!"
Time is a flat circle. It’s not that de Jong is the player we need. It’s that the player we need is him, and as icky as de Jong’s history makes me feel, I can understand the front office’s going after the player that best fits the team’s needs.
But there’s that ickiness again. And round and round we go.