Adjusting to a new club in a new league is challenge enough. Competing for minutes against a hometown guy who's been a fan favorite for years?
That's another level of challenge entirely, and while it caught Marcel de Jong by surprise when he first signed with Sporting Kansas City late in the offseason, the Canadian international has quickly established himself as a first-choice contender at left back.
Even before four-year starter Seth Sinovic went out with a groin strain – an injury that will keep him out for a second straight match when Sporting visit the LA Galaxy on Saturday (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) – de Jong started three of Kansas City's first five matches. He earned MLS Team of the Week honors after his second start on March 21 and has impressed manager Peter Vermes with his progress at the demanding position.
“He's getting there. He's slowly getting there,” Vermes told reporters during the club's weekly news conference on Thursday. “I thought last game was a really good game for him. That was his best game so far for us. I think one of his things is getting fitter, to play the way we play. He's also understanding some of the responsibilities that go along with playing that position in the way that we play. Every day, he gets a little closer to what we want him to be.”
One set of pluses, Vermes said, is the range of offensive options de Jong provides, both on set pieces and from the run of play.
“He's a very good server of the ball,” Vermes said. “He also has a cannon from distance, which you haven't seen yet. He really does. I'm sure at some point, that'll come out in one of the games, because he can hit the ball.”
For Vermes, the chance to bring in the 28-year-old de Jong from Bundesliga side FC Augsburg was a no-brainer – no matter who the incumbent was or where he's from.
“That never enters my mind with any player on the team, ever,” Vermes said. “There's only one thing that enters my mind: Who are the best 11 to participate in that next game that I have available? That's it. It's kind of like when you go after a [Designated Player]. There used to be this idea that you go after a DP, and you've got to make him a – he's got to have some marketing pull so he can help sell tickets. I've never been a person that thinks that way, because at the end of the day, if your team's playing well and you're winning, I would like to think that would be the most important thing that you would support.
If being embraced by the faithful is a gradual process, the reverse – de Jong's reaction to his new club home and the atmosphere that surrounds it – has been nothing but positive from the outset.
“It's amazing,” he said. “The first time I stepped on the pitch, I got goosebumps all over my skin, because there was such a nice feeling when I stepped on the field – all the fireworks and everything. Not what I'm used to in Europe. But it's amazing.”
Getting regular minutes again just makes that better for de Jong, as he works to integrate himself into Sporting's high-pressure style.
“It's nonstop working – back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “It's tough, and the physical aspect is also pretty big here.”
He's also been impressed by the quality of play in MLS, after playing in the Netherlands – de Jong holds dual Dutch and Canadian citizenship – and Germany.
“Of course, I also play for the Canadian national team,” he said, “The guys told me as well that the league is underrated, and there are a lot of good players in there, a good level. I wasn't really that surprised, but the league is really good.”
Overall, de Jong said, he's been happy with his adjustment to all of his new situations – even as he acknowledged the work still ahead of him in each of those areas.
“I feel good,” he said. “Of course, I wasn't playing at my club very much the last year or so, so it takes a while to get my old rhythm back. But I think I'm slowly getting there. But I feel good in this team. I'm happy to be here.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.