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Author: Iain Macintosh

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Sometimes we can be a little hysterical about challenges in football. Bound up by tribal loyalties or an earnest sense of protection, we forget that football is intense, physical and occasionally dangerous. Accidents happen and they always look worse in a slow motion replay. But Nigel de Jong’s challenge on Darlington Nagbe was no accident.

De Jong is 31. He is not an excitable rookie, eager to impress with his commitment. Slamming his boot down on Nagbe, his face turned away from the impact, he looked like a timorous man trying to stamp on a giant spider, terrified of what he might see when it went splat. What actually went splat, in this instance, was Nagbe’s ankle. He left the pitch in a wheelchair. He may need it for a few weeks yet.

The fallout to De Jong’s misdemeanour was extensive. The furious bust-up on the pitch that followed the challenge was continued in the press and across social media. There was even a spat between the official Twitter accounts of LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers. Given that De Jong has previous for this, Galaxy have since been accused of essentially inviting a serial thug into the country. That seems a little much, but a retrospective ban may still follow for the Dutchman. And yet he has done his club some service. With all the attention on the tackle, another poor performance by the Galaxy has gone relatively unnoticed.

The champions of 2014 had won both of their previous home games, but had picked up only a single point on the road. Facing the champions of 2015 in their own back yard, albeit champions that had won only once in the first four games of their defence, they strove for a win. For much of the second half, it seemed that they wouldn’t even get a draw.

In fairness to coach Bruce Arena, this is a Galaxy short on stars. Steven Gerrard is sidelined, though given his diminishing effectiveness, his absence is nothing compared to the problems caused by Robbie Keane’s injury. The Irishman is recovering from a knee operation and won’t be back until mid-May. Arena could at least call upon his third and final designated player Giovani dos Santos, but the Mexican forward was desperately rusty here and posed barely any threat at all. Ahead of him was the flamboyantly coiffured Gyasi Zardes, an unpredictable talent more suited to the flanks.
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The day did not start well for Galaxy. They lost makeshift right-back Robbie Rogers to injury after only eight minutes and he spent seven of those limping. Into his place trotted Rafael Garcia, a midfielder deployed outside his comfort zone. And yet he acquitted himself well. The real problems were elsewhere. Portland were tightly packed, looking to Fanendo Adi whenever they cleared their lines. Galaxy barely came close to breaking them down. Timbers’ defence, hit for four by Orlando last week, held strong. But this made for a miserable first half, the sort of half that leaves the viewer with so many unanswered questions. Questions like, “Why am I watching this?” and, “Is it time for me to get back into cricket?

Mercifully, talking points emerged after the break. Mike Magee, toiling without reward, drove a low shot just past the post, but Galaxy’s inability to turn possession into good opportunities bit them on the bottom after 52 minutes. Timbers’ striker Adi played Champions League football for Copenhagen in 2013 and if European clubs are watching, they may consider that he could still play in that competition again in the future. At six foot four, he has the size and strength to dominate defenders, but what strikes you most is the way he bends his runs to find space and the comfort he enjoys on the ball. Racing onto a delicate pass from midfielder Diego Valeri, he cut inside, steadied himself and then calmly deposited the ball into the bottom corner. Little wonder that he’s scored so freely since arriving in the US.

Galaxy responded. Sebastian Lletget was making a nuisance of himself on the right. But when he delivered a low pass into the Timbers’ area just before the hour, Zardes and Magee both pounced, nearly ran into each other, and the chance was lost. And then came the moment for the villain of the piece to make himself known. Never mind slow motion. De Jong’s challenge was hideous in real time. He really should have been sent off.

With Portland fuming at the injustice, it felt inevitable that Galaxy would capitalise. But there was nothing inevitable about the manner of the goal. Lletget, again, fired in a dangerous cross from the right. Aware that Zardes was lurking behind him, veteran Timbers’ defender Nat Borchers hurled himself through the air and powered his header…straight into his own goal. It was a cruel end to a game in which the 34 year old had defended with vigour throughout.
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Galaxy escaped with a point, but they may not escape without further punishment for De Jong’s offence. Arena may be without three of his former Premier League stars when he travels to Houston next weekend.
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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces

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