It was less of a tackle, more of a stab. Nigel De Jong was late to the ball and came down on Darlington Nagbe’s left ankle instead. De Jong, who is Los Angeles’ new midfield destroyer, will receive a healthy suspension. Nagbe, who is a shining star for the Cup-holding Timbers, is out indefinitely. Stuart Holden was pissed.
“There is absolutely no excuse for that type of challenge,” according to the dude whose leg got broken by De Jong six years ago. He’s got a point, and Portland have already been blown out of one match without their brilliant attacker this week with another one to come on Saturday.
But one of the more quietly frustrating aspects of De Jong’s play is how it casts a shadow over one of the best parts of MLS. The league has a bevy of brilliant defensive midfielders who are reinventing the position. De Jong’s dark arts are no match for the way Americans play the game.
In MLS, a d-mid is essentially a more physical #8. They can’t just seek and destroy the other team’s best player because they have to do so much else: pass, move, and keep things organized.
Take Dax McCarty, who yeah is having a rough season along with the rest of Red Bulls but who has been a stealth MVP candidate for years before that. Dax is much, much, smaller but no less tenacious. And unlike De Jong, Dax can get lateral or distribute — a poor man’s Claude Makelele.
Makelele redefined defensive midfield play about a decade ago for Chelsea. It was enough to make American youth coaches put their best player behind the midfield, to give them the time and pacing to hit passes and space to out-athlete lesser teenagers. One can imagine a 15-year-old Michael Bradley, ruining more high schoolers’ lives than acne.
Of course, Bradley outgrew the role when he went pro. And in Europe, Makelele’s defense/distribution mix became less necessary once centerbacks – and even goalkeepers – began to pass like midfielders. Check a Champions League game these days and you’ll see a 6’4, 210-lb. beast place the ball on a striker’s right foot from 50 yards away.
In MLS? Yeah, the Axel Sjobergs of the league can’t quite do that. It means that players like McCarty or Darwin Ceren become just as irreplaceable as their millionaire teammates. It means that physical specimens like Diego Chara or Ozzie Alonso are expected to be hard-charging demons to play against, but demons with an intellect to think two passes ahead of their devastating tackles. It means that every member of Sam’s Army knows how to spell “Wil Trapp.”
The American game emphasizes linking play and rewards chess-playing in a way that more technical leagues (where even the backup keepers were raised on soccer theory) don’t. This means that De Jong, an absolute game-changer in his prime, is just kind of a dingus in the US. The World Cup veteran is having a tough time replacing Juninho, a tiny balding Brazilian.
Which brings up another peculiarity of d-mids in America. They are team-specific. So while Dax McCarty has his Twitter fans who want him called into the US Men’s National Team, it’s not all that likely. He is so darn good for Red Bulls because he knows exactly what the other 10 men need from him. Until Jurgen Klinsmann can decide on another 10 men, and I hope you’re not holding your breath, there is no reason to have Dax. Or any other team-specific talisman back there.
The American national teams have been their best when they had a John Harkes or John O’Brien to fall back on. But now they don’t take advantage of what America does best — counter through a smart defensive midfielder.
If you want to watch two masters of the craft, check out San Jose when they visit Portland on Saturday night. Anibal Godoy is expected back from a knee injury to settle down the Earthquakes. Diego Chara will do all of the heavy lifting to get an attack going in lieu of the still-injured Nagbe. If he can frustrate the white-hot Chris Wondolowski while getting the ball up to the Timbers’ own attack, his tired Portland team will have a chance.
Earlier on Saturday, Toronto will try and use a finally-healthy Altidore to muscle past a dangerous DC team whose home-field advantage will be mitigated by a bit of a fan revolt. Real Salt Lake, still the only undefeated team in the league, will host a punchless Vancouver side in the mountain altitude.
Before all that, the De Jong-less Galaxy will show off what they can do without the league’s most hated man. They’ll travel to Houston tonight to face off what could be a ruthless Dynamo playing in their city’s dreadful humidity. Los Angeles is full of holes and could use some defensive cover. It’s too bad for them that anyone who could help them out is playing in Mexico, suspended, or suiting up elsewhere for a less-cynical, less-moneyed MLS side.
Catch all of our MLS (and EPL) action on SiriusXM FC (Ch. 85).
Our weekly soccer dose is authored by Asher Kohn, an all-around decent human and soccer enthusiast. You can discuss all things soccer with him on Twitter: @ajkhn
Music, Sports, News and more
All in one place on the SiriusXM app