Share story

On the afternoon of March 3, 2010, at a chilly Amsterdam Arena, U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden took a single, deft touch to stop the momentum of the ball before pivoting to his left.

Play was in transition, momentum in flux. For the next few seconds, Holden still was a budding English Premier League standout, having torn up the EPL with equally surprising Bolton Wanderers that season. Enter Nigel de Jong, approaching from Holden’s left with a powerful, upraised cleat.

The enforcer known as The Lawnmower broke Holden’s leg with resulting tackle, and though the American would return for the national team in time for that summer’s World Cup, he suffered a similar injury the next season with Bolton and was never the same player. Holden retired last year at age 30 following years of stops and starts.

On Sunday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., de Jong — who had been signed, slightly controversially given the violence trailing in his wake, by the Los Angeles Galaxy in February — sought out Holden, who was working as a commentator for that night’s Galaxy-Portland Timbers Fox Sports 1 broadcast. Holden, introspective throughout his frustrating series of futile rehab stints, said the conversation was as in-depth as the pair had had since the incident. De Jong apologized again for what had happened, and bygones will be bygones.

Then Holden watched from the sideline as de Jong gruesomely injured another budding U.S. national-team standout and cast a pall over the rest of the resulting 1-1 draw.

Darlington Nagbe, Portland’s exuberant, 25-year-old attacker who earned his long-sought U.S. citizenship in September, left the field in a wheelchair after his leg was stomped on by de Jong in the 73rd minute. Though Timbers coach Caleb Porter couldn’t provide a health update in the aftermath, it seems apparent that both Portland and the national team will be without the playmaker for the foreseeable future.

Handling the deja vu aftermath with admirably measured composure, Holden said that he was “sick” for Nagbe during FS1’s postgame broadcast.

“De Jong did go over and apologize, but there is absolutely no excuse for that type of challenge,” Holden said. “We don’t need it in the game. It’s horrific. It’s horrible. And he’s going to get retroactive punishment.”

One of the most depressing aspects of the collision was just how predictable it was. Nagbe has been the most-fouled player in MLS over the past five seasons, and his 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame had taken a beating all game.

The day the Galaxy signed de Jong, I received a prescient text message from a fellow American soccer fan with a shared affinity for shifty little attackers: “I fear for Nagbe.” De Jong’s addition was derided from the beginning as contrary to MLS’ desire to distance itself from a reputation as a physical league that grinds down its playmakers.

The flashpoint was timely given the debate in MLS circles this past week on whether referees had been too heavy-handed in the early weeks of this season. 16 red cards had been shown in the first 42 matches of the campaign, an uptick from recent years but not a significant one, and head of the referees’ organization Peter Walton went on record defending his charges with a relevant reference to the 2011 season.

Seattle attacker Steve Zakuani was just one of the attackers injured during that violent two-and-a-half week stretch of play, his leg injury derailing a promising career that had also just started to take off on the international stage. Zakuani, now a Sounders commentator, took to social media to condemn what he called a “disgraceful tackle” by de Jong.

He was far from the only one, outrage bridging even the Sounders-Timbers rivalry lines:

De Jong was shown only a yellow card from referee Allen Chapman, but the MLS Disciplinary Committee could still retroactively suspend him for a few games. Time will tell whether Nagbe is fortunate enough to miss a similarly brief spell of game time.

– Player of the week: Fabian Espindola, D.C. United.

Believe it or not, there were also some positives to take from this weekend’s MLS action — and boy, did D.C. need the pick-me-up. United entered Saturday winless in five games, then routed Vancouver 4-0 at RFK Stadium.

Espindola was the spark, netting his team’s first two goals on either side of halftime and finally beating stubborn Whitecaps goalkeeper David Ousted.

– Goal of the week: Tranquillo Barnetta, Philadelphia Union.

Barnetta’s free kick was so good, he might have gotten his nod even if it wasn’t a 90th-minute game-winner.

– Games to watch in the coming week: Dallas at Portland (Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. PST on MLS Live), Vancouver at Salt Lake (Saturday at 7 p.m. on MLS Live), New England at Orlando (Sunday at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN), Kansas City at Dallas (Sunday at 4 p.m. on FS1).

Updated standings

Eastern Conference

Points Overall Home Away
# Club PTS PPG GP W L T GF GA GD W-L-T W-L-T
1 Montreal Impact 9 1.8 5 3 2 0 8 5 3 2-0-0 1-2-0
2 Philadelphia Union 9 1.8 5 3 2 0 7 5 2 2-0-0 1-2-0
3 Orlando City SC 8 1.6 5 2 1 2 9 6 3 1-0-2 1-1-0
4 New England Revolution 7 1.17 6 1 1 4 6 8 -2 1-0-2 0-1-2
5 New York City FC 6 1.2 5 1 1 3 7 7 0 0-1-3 1-0-0
6 Chicago Fire 6 1.2 5 1 1 3 5 5 0 1-1-1 0-0-2
7 D.C. United 6 1 6 1 2 3 7 9 -2 1-1-1 0-1-2
8 Toronto FC 5 1 5 1 2 2 5 5 0 0-0-0 1-2-2
9 New York Red Bulls 3 0.6 5 1 4 0 4 11 -7 1-2-0 0-2-0
10 Columbus Crew SC 2 0.4 5 0 3 2 3 7 -4 0-1-0 0-2-2

Western Conference

Points Overall Home Away
# Club PTS PPG GP W L T GF GA GD W-L-T W-L-T
1 Sporting Kansas City 12 2.4 5 4 1 0 7 3 4 2-1-0 2-0-0
2 Real Salt Lake 11 2.2 5 3 0 2 9 6 3 2-0-0 1-0-2
3 FC Dallas 11 1.83 6 3 1 2 10 8 2 2-0-2 1-1-0
4 LA Galaxy 8 1.6 5 2 1 2 8 4 4 2-0-1 0-1-1
5 San Jose Earthquakes 8 1.6 5 2 1 2 7 7 0 2-0-1 0-1-1
6 Colorado Rapids 7 1.4 5 2 2 1 3 3 0 2-0-0 0-2-1
7 Vancouver Whitecaps FC 7 1.17 6 2 3 1 6 10 -4 1-1-1 1-2-0
8 Houston Dynamo 5 1 5 1 2 2 12 9 3 1-0-2 0-2-0
9 Portland Timbers 5 1 5 1 2 2 7 10 -3 1-0-1 0-2-1
10 Seattle Sounders FC 4 0.8 5 1 3 1 4 6 -2 1-2-0 0-1-1