De Jong glad to be back for Canada
John Molinaro September 5, 2012
TORONTO -- The smile was the first thing you noticed.
It wasn’t a smirk, or a wry grin. It was a beaming, toothy, ear-to-ear smile, born out of a genuine love of being reunited with his Canadian teammates on home soil.
All through Wednesday afternoon’s training session -- even as the Canadian national team was put through its rigorous paces by coach Stephen Hart at BMO Field -- that infectious smile never disappeared.
And why shouldn’t Marcel de Jong smile? He’s happy, healthy and he figures to be a key player for Canada in its upcoming World Cup qualifying matches, starting with Friday’s contest in Toronto against Panama.
But it wasn’t too long ago that the 25-year-old left fullback, who plays for FC Augsburg in the Bundesliga, didn’t have much to smile about.
A semi-regular starter with one goal in 18 appearances since making his debut for Canada in 2007, de Jong suffered an ankle injury in February (this after previously dealing with a series of nagging injuries over the previous 12 months) that ruled him out for the remainder of the German league season.
The broken ankle forced him to sit out Canada’s two World Cup qualifying games (against Cuba and Honduras) and its centennial match against the United States in June. In his absence, veteran defender Ante Jazic played at left back, helping Canada earn three consecutive shutouts.
Jazic looked solid playing in de Jong’s absence, and has made a strong case to remain in the starting line-up. But now that de Jong is fully fit after undergoing surgery and having returned to play for Augsburg, he’s anxious to win his place back.
“The ankle feels good. I have no problems anymore and the operation went really well and I’ve had no setbacks. I feel fit and I have no complaints,” de Jong told sportsnet.ca.
“It’s great to see the boys again. It’s nice (to be back) but I’m here to play and to help the team qualify for the World Cup. That’s the most important thing.”
De Jong appeared as a second-half substitute in Canada’s 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly last month. It was his first game for the national team since last June’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. His prolonged absence meant he hasn’t featured in any of Canada’s World Cup qualifying matches for this cycle, and winning his spot in the lineup may not be so easy.
But the native of Newmarket, Ont., who previously played for Dutch clubs Helmond Sport and Roda JC before moving to Germany in 2010, isn’t too concerned. If he’s going to be used as a substitute for the time being, he’s perfectly fine with that.
“I don’t have any problems about that because I’ve been a regular with the national team over the past few years. I know I’ve been out for a while, but I think I have a lot to offer this team, so I’m not worried,” de Jong said.
It’ll be interesting to see how Hart uses de Jong, if at all, for Friday’s game, and the return match next Tuesday in Panama.
The Canadian coach might not want to tinker with a back line that has recorded three consecutive shutouts. But if Hart does field an unchanged defence, that doesn’t necessarily mean de Jong will sit on the bench. With left midfielder Josh Simpson still out with a long-term injury, Hart could slot de Jong in at that spot.
“We lost Josh Simpson (but) Marcel can play further forward or (in the) back, anywhere on the left side. That’s gives us a lot of options that we didn’t have in the last set of games in June,” Hart stated.
Deployed as a left fullback by Augsburg, de Jong has played on the left side of midfield before for Canada, and has excelled there by giving the attack more width with his dangerous runs down the flank.
“It’s my most comfortable position (left fullback). I like having the entire pitch in front of me. (But) if Stephen needs me in the midfield, I’ll go there and do my thing. I have no problems with that,” de Jong said.
A regular start for Augsburg, de Jong is keen to duplicate his club form for his country. He also realizes the importance of taking three points from Friday’s contest.
Canada currently sits second in its qualifying group with four points, two behind first place Panama and three ahead of Honduras with four games to go. Only the top two nations move on to the final round of the CONCACAF qualifiers, and with tricky trips ahead to Panama (next week) and Honduras (in October), Canada can’t afford to drop points at home.
“We have to win our home games. We have two more home games, so that’s six points,” de Jong stated.
Scoring has been a bit of a problem for Canada, as it has just one goal in its qualifying matches this round. The Canadian team created chances against Honduras back in June, but failed to convert any of them and were far too wasteful in front of goal, and settled for a 0-0 draw.
What does Canada have to do to rectify the problem? De Jong suggests greater patience is required, allied to a strategic plan to hit out against opponents on the counter-attack.
“We have to be patient. ... At the right times we have to push up and do things, and make the plays we know we can do. But we have to be patient. That’s the big thing,” de Jong offered.