Why Nigel de Jong may be LA Galaxy's most important player
CARSON, Calif. -- Bruce Arena's prescription for building winners relies strongly on veteran leaders, and when they have the pedigree of some of his more illustrious stars he’s had over the past decade, all the better. This year's team might have the finest collection of veterans Major League Soccer has seen -- seven of his players have worn the captain's armband for one club or another -- and the most vital of them, at least on the field, isn't who you might think.
Yes, Robbie Keane is be-all, do-all for the LA Galaxy, the team's irrepressible skipper, with leadership skills as valuable as his game. Former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard is revered for his integrity, thorough professionalism, how he takes MLS as seriously as he did the EPL, and for his immense effort to overcome a difficult start at the club. He's not as fiery as Keane, but he's got everybody's ear.
Then there's Nigel de Jong, who skippered AC Milan. And defenders Jelle Van Damme, who was captain at Standard Liege, and Ashley Cole, who wore the armband for England. No. 2 goalkeeper Dan Kennedy was Chivas USA's captain, and midfielder Jeff Larentowicz was the Chicago Fire's.
Keane is the clear alpha in all of this, Gerrard the beta, and Van Damme -- probably the team MVP to this point -- has taken command along the backline. But the most important figure on the pitch? That's de Jong.
The Dutch midfielder, signed last December, has been exactly what it was hoped he'd be: A tough-nosed organizer, an intimidating tackler, a player who relishes the physical battles but has the skill to do so much more. The Galaxy revolve around de Jong, who provides expert cover for the backline in MLS' second-best defense and serves as one of the chief conduits going forward.
He's a step beyond what LA had with Brazilians Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, probably the finest of the club's midfield tandems. They offered wholly complementary styles -- Sarvas the destroyer, Juni cutting off passing lanes, both triggering the transition -- and played a significant role when LA won the 2014 MLS Cup title. Sarvas left for Colorado the following year, and Juni's winter move to Club Tijuana opened the door for de Jong, who wasn't getting enough playing time Milan and, like so many other European stars, heard that MLS was a cool place to play.
Sarvas' departure cost the Galaxy some of its grit, and the team wasn't tough enough down the stretch last season, falling from atop the overall standings to fifth in the West and taking the earliest playoff exit in club history. Arena wanted bite, and de Jong -- nicknamed “the Lawnmower” for his notoriously brutal tackles -- has provided plenty. It's made LA much tougher to play against but has cost him at times, with a three-game suspension for a harsh tackle on Portland's Darlington Nagbe in April and a two-game ban after his crunching foul on Vancouver's Blas Perez won him a July 4 red card.
Numbers don't do him justice. Actually, they suggest LA is a better team when he's off the field, although Arena will remind us “idiots” that the only stat that matters is the score. Well, there, too. The Galaxy is 4-3-9 with de Jong on the field -- he had, to be fair, already been subbed out before Didier Drogba's stoppage-time winner in Montreal in late May -- and 5-0-2 while averaging twice as many goals and conceding just a fraction more without him.
There's context. Giovani Dos Santos' explosion in April and May coincided exactly with de Jong's first ban and a knee ailment that sidelined him another two games. The Dutchman's second suspension kept him from victories over struggling Seattle and Houston. LA's June swoon was about Keane and Gyasi Zardes' international absences and a minor Gerrard injury.
Chemistry remains a work in progress, with injuries and a formation change having slowed the process. De Jong has had just seven league games with Larentowicz, who has emerged as his primary partner in front of the back four. Larentowicz has some of de Jong's qualities -- he's more Sarvas than Juninho -- and offers a different partnership than Gerrard or Baggio Husidic. There's room to grow.
It doesn't take much watching to see De Jong's importance. He's the fulcrum, keeping things tight when foes attack, winning balls in midfield with an unrivaled intimidation factor, and connecting LA's possession game, which is a marvel to see when it's flowing. He's the outlet at the back as the Galaxy move forward, finding angles to open space ahead, shifting the ball from one side to the other, putting it on the feet of the creators in front of him, and more numbers that don't matter can attest to his influence when things are fluid and the patterns so pretty, such as during Saturday's draw with Colorado.
De Jong connected on 65 of 73 pass attempts, the bulk in the middle third. Seven of the top nine passing combinations involved him. He had similar figures, and impact, in the opening-day win over D.C. United, the victory two weeks later over San Jose, draws in June with Sporting Kansas City and San Jose, and before his dismissal in the Fourth of July triumph over the Whitecaps.
It's impressive, sure, but LA wins when the creative players – Keane, Gerrard, Dos Santos, Zardes, mostly -- are sharp. When they aren't, the Galaxy usually draw. They often aren't sharp.
What de Jong does is provide a landscape that better enables success. LA has MLS' fourth-best offense, second-best defense and most substantial goal difference, and only FC Dallas and Colorado are claiming more points per game. Imagine what happens if LA's connections come together.
Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.