Arena and the Lawnmower: Why, Bruce, why ...?

By Paul Gardner

Bruce Arena's signing of Nigel de Jong is a shameful episode.

The most experienced American coach of the lot, with so much to admire about him ... what can have possessed him?

Obviously, he knows Nigel de Jong’s unpleasant persona as a player. How can he not know? The lowlights of de Jong’s career are, quite frankly, disgusting. The violent karate kick delivered into Xabi Alonso’s rib cage during the 2010 World Cup final is the most spectacular, the one that most people will remember.

But there is much more -- and much worse -- to de Jong’s years as a midfield monster. The damage he willfully inflicted on opponents, for instance. The two broken legs. That is two more than the vast majority of players ever achieve. But de Jong racked up his duo in just one year, 2010, the annus terribilis in which, at the age of 25, he sealed his claim to be the ultimate psoccopath.

One of his victims was the French winger Hatem Ben Arfa -- sent to hospital with his left leg mangled, both the tibia and the fibula broken. Arfa was out of action for 10 months. During which time de Jong played on.

But the incident that surely ought to have given Arena pause before signing de Jong happened earlier in 2010, during a friendly game between the Netherlands and the USA. Then it was the USA’s Stuart Holden who bore the impact of one of de Jong’s ferocious tackles. Another broken leg -- Holden was out of action for six weeks. Netherlands coach Bert Van Marwijk promptly suspended de Jong from his team, saying “It was a wild and unnecessary offense. I have a problem with the way Nigel needlessly looks to push the limit.” But de Jong was soon back in action. Of course he was.

For America’s top coach to invite de Jong into MLS is a cruel slap in the face for Holden. No doubt Holden will be nice about things, not wanting to be seen as vindictive. What he really thinks -- well, how much thought did Arena give to that?

De Jong’s record is appalling, and is well known to be appalling. This is what Wikipedia has to say: “In December 2013, Spanish football website El Gol Digital ranked de Jong 10th in its list of the world's dirtiest footballers." Last December the respected French sports newspaper L'Équipe called De Jong one of the three most violent players in the world.

Clearly, de Jong has talents that appeal to coaches. He has spent his career at top clubs -- Ajax, Hamburg, Manchester City, Milan, and he has won titles. But if you want whatever it is that de Jong brings, there is a price to pay. The thuggery. Too many coaches -- even Van Marwijk relented -- would appear willing to ignore, or accept, the violence. Unless, of course, the thuggery is the very reason they want him.

That is a question that Arena needs to answer. Why on earth has he signed this dangerous midfielder who has been called The Destroyer and The Lawnmower? What is the attraction? Listening to Arena’s comments on de Jong is simply a waste of time. Of course the mayhem is not mentioned. Anyway, I’ve heard these comments a thousand times from a thousand coaches about a thousand players: “a guy that's got a ton of experience and is an outstanding defensive midfielder ... he can be a real anchor for us in the midfield, can complement the players around him, and we expect him to be a real good player.”

Assistant coach Dave Sarachan seems unaware of the irony in his words: “you count on him to be disciplined.” The guy who delivered a flailing high kick to an opponent’s chest in the middle of a World Cup final? Disciplined?

As far as I am concerned all of that is irrelevant anyway. It matters not whether de Jong turns out to be a huge star or a monster flop. He should not be here. Arena did not have to sign him. There are plenty of players around who know how to play good soccer without sending opponents to hospital. This raises the ugly possibility that de Jong is being signed because he comes cheap. Surely Arena would not be that cynically venal, would he?

When Holden was recovering from his broken leg, he remarked: “I would not accuse him [de Jong] of intentionally trying to break my leg, I would just describe it as a reckless tackle. There was a lot of controversy, but you do get reckless tackles in football sometimes."

You do. It’s just that too many of them happen when de Jong is around. He has had his chances to clean up his act, more than one, but he is a recidivist, and he has been forgiven too often. If he’s going to get yet one more chance to maim someone, it should not be here.

In theory, Commissioner Don Garber could nix the deal. But he’ll stick to his belief -- probably correct -- that he shouldn’t be telling coaches which players to sign. In which case, Garber has a right to expect that the coaches will not make dreadful decisions like this one. And Holden should not be put in the uncomfortable position of having to pretend that everything is just fine.

Do I have to reveal a personal interest? Very well then. Arena is the American coach for whom I have most respect. I like the man, have always found him knowledgeable, willing to talk, and to talk sense. With humor. Now I have this utterly disgraceful signing to confront, and I’m forced to thoroughly disagree with every aspect of it.

There should be no place at the Galaxy, or in MLS, for a player with de Jong’s unsavory record. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said for the deal. Bruce, you’ve made a truly awful error.

44 comments about "Arena and the Lawnmower: Why, Bruce, why ...?".
  1. Fidel Colman, February 4, 2016 at 9:16 a.m.

    It's been my experience playing in adult rec leagues that with age players like de Jong get even more reckless - Frustration sets in when they can no longer physically play the way they used to - Let's wish for the best......

  2. Daniel Clifton, February 4, 2016 at 9:21 a.m.

    I must admit that I, like PG, have difficulty understanding this signing by Arena for reasons PG expresses. I also cannot understand why the Galaxy are signing so many over the hill mid-30's Europeans. I don't see this as setting up a successful season.

  3. Raymond Weigand replied, February 4, 2016 at 11:37 a.m.


  4. Glenn Auve, February 4, 2016 at 9:56 a.m.

    Maybe by "count on him to be disciplined" Sarachan meant that the MLS DisCo will be busy disciplining him?

  5. Footballer Forever, February 4, 2016 at 9:57 a.m.

    Paul, GET OFF MY LAWN' Gardner, why, Paul, why...?

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, February 4, 2016 at 7:07 p.m.

    WHNY? Why not???

  7. Walt Pericciuoli, February 4, 2016 at 10:06 a.m.

    100%correct Paul. What will he bring to the table that will make LA a better team? Hard to figure this move out at all.

  8. David V, February 4, 2016 at 10:23 a.m.

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE, EXCELLENT... thug is an accurate description. By the way, not only did this character and the Dutch squad rob the world of an incredible world cup game (remember Van Marwijk asked Cruyff if his team could beat Spain the way Inter beat Barca that year in the Champions League, and Cruyff said that no matter what, Holland could not win, and from that moment on, the Dutch scripted a dirty play strategy against the great team in history), but so did the referee. This was a game the Spanish would have won 4,5,6 to 0 if the Dutch had played fairly (you'll recall, besides DeJong, 2 other Dutch players should have been red carded within the first half... my memory is a little fuzzy, but I think actually within the first 30 minutes there were 3 clear red cards Clockwork Orange should have received). Clearly the referee in that game, HOWARD WEBB, was horrible (he finally gave a red after a 2nd yellow in the 2nd overtime)... what a horrible referee. And you know what? All the English commentators/media and the English football associations all said that Webb (an Englishman) had done a wonderful job, just a great job. Amazing!!! It's horrible refereeing that contributes to these DeJong type thugs on the field. (By the way, US, wake up and quick following the English "interpretation" of the rules when games are being reffed... we, meaning the US, don't seem to know that you must be playing the ball to level a player - it's standard practice to level the player and then play the ball... here in the USA, and we got that way watching too much English Football. Let's not be enablers of this butchery, whether it is Area, or this repulsive brand of playing and refereeing football.

  9. David V, February 4, 2016 at 10:28 a.m.

    would De Jong have changed if he had received a 4 month ban from the game? I think... 4 months might be good

  10. David V, February 4, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    And maybe something else... in addition to the 4month ban, perhaps the player is not allowed to play against the same opponent in their next 2 head-to-head games (in similar level play... not friendlies... so for example DeJong wouldn't be able to play against Spain in their next 2 competitive matches... and the butcher, filipe luis (of Atletico de Madrid) would get the same for his horrific play against Messi that happened a few weeks back...

  11. David V, February 4, 2016 at 10:36 a.m.

    I'm thinking I'm doing pretty good hear... FIFA should hire me, I just put out a few $Millon dollar ideas here for the game

  12. R2 Dad, February 4, 2016 at 10:44 a.m.

    Arena, sizing up MLS refereeing standards, bets on continued permissiveness. He's a smart guy, so he obviously knows something we don't.

  13. Kent James replied, February 8, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.

    A purely cynical way to look at things, but unfortunately, you may be's the best reason for signing him that I've heard.

  14. Raymond Weigand, February 4, 2016 at 11:47 a.m.

    Arena is a guy that takes his marching orders from above ... sell more tickets / sell more jerseys / sell more advertising.
    I am sure Bruce's next book, aptly titled: Arena Football ... From Expectations to Frustrations.

  15. Scott Johnson replied, February 4, 2016 at 6:05 p.m.

    +1 to Arena Football. Maybe he means to sic de Jong on Caleb Porter, next time the Timbers whip the Galaxy? :)

  16. John Polis, February 4, 2016 at noon

    For those of us who are old enough (and I was one of those reporting back then), the old NASL brought over tons of players who were 30-ish or older. Of course, the gap between these players and the Americans in the league was much wider then, but the principle was the same. Name recognition. Ticket sales. Experience. But back then, teams were not playing a 34-game season and as we watch the MLS these days, with all of its travel, hot weather and wear-and-tear on the players, the older guys don't do all that well. It will be interesting to see, not only if De Jong has disciplinary issues this season, but also how well he and other "senior citizens" coming into the LA lineup keep from breaking down during the long campaign.

  17. Ric Fonseca replied, February 4, 2016 at 12:43 p.m.

    Hey John, I am probably as "young as you" and I do remember the then new-to-the-US soccer league. I used to go see the Oakland Clippers in the late '60s (and even Ted Howard - now with a fancy title with CONCACAF was a young guy working for them) BUT you must admit that then there was a virtual dearth of US-born talent, and it was more of a bottom line issue. I went to see Pele in the Oakland Coliseum, then in LA, the Wolves, the Calif Surf, etc. So they had to bring in the senior soccer-citizens in order to spark US interest in the jogo bonito.

  18. Allan Lindh, February 4, 2016 at 12:32 p.m.

    Well, on the other hand, Nigel is a shoe-in for the Kobalenko award this year. Boycott Galaxie games, don't watch them on TV,and if you just have to go to a match, then boo every time this violent criminal steps on the field. Total lack of class, shame on you Bruce Arena.

  19. Ric Fonseca, February 4, 2016 at 12:39 p.m.

    Well, folks, all I can ay here re: PG's piece is: BRAVO, BRAVISIMO Don Paul Gardner!!! And again, let me remind all, that several weeks ago Arena Football was quoted saying that - and I am paraphrasing here - that American (born) players need to get paid better if not more than what they are getting now, and yet here is this guy "selling" Omar Gonzalez to Pachuca, and sending Juninho to Cholos of Tijuana (?) just so he could bring over Cole, this guy and the other over-the-hill Euros for quite a sum (see LA Times, 2/3/16 sports section article by Baxter) My suspicion is that I think it was both Keane and Steve Grarard that more than likely acted as "pseudo agents" for these guys, and it is also my suspicion that Arena, who wears two hats as GM and Head coach (doesn't he have his son also on the Carson Glaxy coaching staff?) that he, Arena, my be thinking of stepping down and anointing Keane - who supposedly completed his FA Coaching license recently) as head coach.

  20. John Soares, February 4, 2016 at 12:52 p.m.

    Time for MLS (referees) to get serious..... I know, good luck with that, but one can hope.

  21. Kevin Leahy, February 4, 2016 at 1:07 p.m.

    MLS had it right in the begining with Etcheverry, Moreno, Valderamma etc. No one wants to pay to DeJong or Cole. I too would rather see our homegrown players along with creative players, even if they struggle.People don't want to see the hacks play.

  22. James Froehlich, February 4, 2016 at 2:40 p.m.

    I used to be a very big fan of Bruce Arena,starting with his stint at UVa. At that time he was being touted as the rising face of US soccer. He was the future and was going to change how we played. I saw him scouting a youth tournament and told him how pleased I was with what he was trying to do! What a mistake that was! Bruce has been and is the ultimate "soccer establishment man". By that, I certainly don't mean to take away anything from his coaching skills. He is obviously one of the best, if not the best, coach produced in the US. HOWEVER, (you knew a "however"was coming), Bruce has always been part of the team, never one to try to shake things up. He did great as the MNT coach but he never came close to trying to shake up the establishment, never used his "bully pulpit" to try to change the system. Some will quickly say that that wasn't his job! My response is and was: "Whose job was it?" Bruce had and continues to have tremendous influence in the soccer world yet I can't remember ever hearing him speak out on the need to improve our technical skills, to improve the way that our youth are trained/coached, and to improve the outreach beyond suburban youth. My frustration is so great because I remain convinced that he Could have been and could still be a tremendous factor for change. Unfortunately, NOW he facilitates the addition of one of the dirtiest players in the world of soccer to his team and to MLS. If he has never raised a voice against how soccer is run in the US then maybe now is the time to finally speak out.

  23. Ric Fonseca replied, February 4, 2016 at 7:24 p.m.

    James, see my comment to this one, kinda mixed up in attaching it correctly! It's several comments above!

  24. Kent James replied, February 8, 2016 at 3:21 p.m.

    Ric, per your earlier comment, Bruce also played Lacrosse (I thought he had only played Lacrosse, but evidently he was all-american in both Lacrosse and soccer at Cornell; he was primarily a goalkeeper, and only played at Cornell because of injuries (according to wikipedia, he was recruited from the Lacrosse team to play keeper).

  25. beautiful game, February 4, 2016 at 8:40 p.m.

    De Jong will flourish in the MLS as long as the refs swallow the whistle...they all do because the Brit head of refs wants them to keep the game flowing.

  26. Wooden Ships, February 5, 2016 at 8:43 a.m.

    It is troubling the Galaxy would sign Nigel and Garber should have denied it. Like Ric, BFAM, brother from another mother, I remember the old days well and I felt like there were a number of coaches in the St. Louis area that Arena couldn't have held a candle too. But, he has many accomplishments for sure. This really tarnishes his legacy. Is he now a, pouty-scornful I don't get enough attention anymore coach? Ric and us older guys also can remember, at least in St. Louis, how you handled dirty players on the field. It doesn't appear that during his De Jongs career that anybody cleaned his clock to let him know it wasn't going to be tolerated. And, the comment reagarding English football tackling is accurate. They prided their game more on the bone crunching tackles more than they did the technical.

  27. Wooden Ships, February 5, 2016 at 9:06 a.m.

    And, whoever mentioned the Cup final in South Africa was right on. Had always been a fan of Holland-total football. Until that shameful day.

  28. Kent James replied, February 8, 2016 at 3:23 p.m.

    The Dutch lost a lot of fans that day; they took what should have been the ultimate in skillful finals and made it boring and ugly.

  29. Lou vulovich, February 5, 2016 at 9:12 a.m.

    I am really happy to see so many people feel this way not only about Nigel, but the football mentality he represents. Great points made by many especially DV.
    I was waiting for the Galaxy to sign a player of great caliber, a top international star. Instead they sign Nigel, maybe Johny Evans is also available.

  30. Lou vulovich, February 5, 2016 at 9:16 a.m.

    While the Dutch have had some of the best pure football players of all time, they have always employed some of the dirtiest players of all time. That is the main reason that they have 0 WC.
    Remember Edgar David's he deserved a red card every game he ever played.

  31. Kevin Sims, February 5, 2016 at 10:14 a.m.

    Great respect for Bruce & all he has accomplished ... former UVA player bias ... must confess to being troubled by seeing this thug come to MLS ... brings no honor to the match ... we shall see, but hard to imagine he will refrain from his butcher ways

  32. R2 Dad replied, February 5, 2016 at 12:19 p.m.

    Old, a step or two slower, altitude, distance, humidity--these things all work against NDJ having a successful first year. I think he goes half the year and wants out, probably while sitting on a suspension. The idea of MLS in the player's mind is based on the early 2000s, not on the current demands. Stevie G found out the hard way--future old guys to the MLS should ask him about it.

  33. Nalin Carney, February 5, 2016 at 1:10 p.m.

    Bruce, Cut him loose. We have seen what happens when aging stars can no longer compete in Europe. 9 out of 10 are a disaster waiting to happen. Cut him loose and save some potentially damaged players ! ! !

  34. cisco martinez, February 6, 2016 at 10 a.m.

    De Jong is what this country needs, a strong, yes sometimes dirty player that will get stuck in a be a box to box midfielder. Unfortunately, de Jong is a dying breed amongst our national team and teams around the world. If you looks at some of the best teams in the last two decades they had a pit bull, jens jeremies 2002, gattusso 2006, de Jong 2010, viera 1998, davids 1998, etc.

  35. Wooden Ships replied, February 6, 2016 at 10:41 a.m.

    Couldn't disagree with you more Cisco. Dirty play doesn't equal tough play. Two different discussions. To me, in this sport, dirty/cheap play is without honor and character.

  36. Kent James replied, February 8, 2016 at 3:25 p.m.

    Wooden ships, right on. Tough, tenacious, relentless, are all good soccer qualities. Physical, dirty, violent, not so much.

  37. John Morton, February 6, 2016 at 4:02 p.m.

    I'm with Cisco. I don't understand the universal backlash.

    De Jong has average 1.2 fouls per game over the last 5 years, picking up 48 yellows and 1 red. These are average (or even below) for his position; players like Claudio Yacob, Lucas Leiva, and Eric Dier all have 7+ yellow cards at this stage of the season, so 10 per year is not crazy. There are 61 players in the BPL averaging 1.2 or more fouls per game. In the MLS that number is 85.

    People are reminiscing on a few high profile moments without considering that he's really no worse than any other defensive midfielder willing to take a card to help his team win.

  38. Allan Lindh replied, February 8, 2016 at 8:51 p.m.

    The hell with foul counts? How many broken legs per year for de Jong. Dirtiest player I ever saw, except maybe Kobalenko.

  39. Lou vulovich, February 6, 2016 at 8:38 p.m.

    There is a huge difference between a tough clean player and a deliberately dirty player. Just because the refereeing if linient with players like DeJong, David's, Vanbommel etc it is just a reflection of what is wrong with referees and this line of thinking. Based on these comments anything a player does and gets away with is fine as long as he does not get a red card. How about broken legs and ruining someone's career.
    He was at best nothing but average at everything other then kicking people, there he was a first class goon. Congratulations LA

  40. haendel lazo, February 7, 2016 at 3:39 p.m.

    There is great possibility that this guy is going to hurt a young US player badly before the qualifiers this year, please don't allow him to play when facing young american!

  41. Scot Sutherland, February 8, 2016 at 11:18 a.m.

    PG. I'm not sure how closely you have followed Bruce Arena. There was a certain Dema Kovalenko that Bruce favored for years. Personally not surprised that he grabbed De Jong for 500K per year. Perhaps it would be better to put some of this on MLS. If there were enough money under the cap, Juninho wouldn't be at Tijuana and De Jong wouldn't be in LA.

  42. Scot Sutherland replied, February 8, 2016 at 11:22 a.m.

    Also. It appears that Bruce wants to win another MLS Cup. His genius at working under the cap is being missed here. I see it as a pot shot at MLS. He has been vocal about clubs deciding who they acquire.

  43. Kent James, February 8, 2016 at 3:28 p.m.

    Although PG usually stirs a hornets nest in picking controversial subjects, it seems this time he has gotten (almost) universal acclaim. I guess it's good for a columnist not to be too predictable...

  44. Ric Fonseca replied, February 9, 2016 at 8:08 p.m.

    Kent, AMEN! BUT, Cisco above says that a "dirty" player like this guy, is what the MLS needs! OK, then I have the old and trusty London Bridge, that Arizona bought so many years ago, that I'd like to sell Cisco, as well as some excellent beach-front property by the bridge. I rather see good aggressive futbol, and pinche-dirty play ruin it for all of us. Hey Cisco, Pancho is calling you!

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