Though a draw was not the outcome LA Galaxy faithful were hoping for on Wednesday night, the nil-nil affair against Liga MX side Santos Laguna was a perfect opportunity for fans to see how a Galaxy roster that bears little resemblance to its 2015 iteration is coming together prior to the 2016 MLS Season. The CONCACAF Champions League game was the first 90 minutes of competitive soccer that this Starting XI has played together and there was ample fodder for fans to both revel in and bemoan. One of the highlights was the performance of Jelle Van Damme, the 32-year-old Belgian defender who joined the LA Galaxy in the off-season from Belgian Pro-League outfit, Standard Liège.
Van Damme came closest to scoring a goal for the home team mere moments into the start of play when his header off a corner kick in the first minute forced a quick save from Santos goalkeeper Agustin Marchesin.
Van Damme menaced Santos Laguna players throughout the night and was particularly adept with his headers, both offensively and defensively.
Perhaps the most auspicious sign that Van Damme will prove a positive addition to the Galaxy was how seamlessly he slid into the LA Galaxy back four. This bodes well for the Galaxy in more ways than one. First, Van Damme, a solidly built 6’4″ player, is an intimidating presence on a backline otherwise comprised of intelligent but physically unthreatening players. Bruce Arena has always preferred to have at least one big man in his back-lines.
Jelle Van Damme is already under appreciated, the guy is a beast…if we go far, he is going to be a big reason why..imho
Second, the partnership between Van Damme and AJ DeLaGarza in the Santos Laguna game was solid, which is a huge relief for fans concerned about whether DeLaGarza would gel with another partner after having played with Omar Gonzalez for almost a decade. It is no wonder that the Galaxy elected to sign Van Damme following the departure of the 6’5” Gonzalez to Pachuca in December. While the two players are not interchangeable, they share more than a passing resemblance to one another in terms of what they bring to a team. Indeed, Van Damme and Gonzalez secure their highest scores on FIFA 16 in the same handful of metrics: strength, jumping and heading accuracy. DeLaGarza himself conceded the comparison was valid:
“His physicality. His ability to win balls. He’s just dangerous on the attacking side of the ball. And, you hate to compare them, but somewhat of an Omar (Gonzalez).” AJ DeLaGarza, on Jelle Van Damme
It is a strong endorsement of Van Damme that DeLaGarza would liken his new partner to Gonzalez given how close DeLaGarza and Gonzalez were, both professionally and personally. The addition of Van Damme also means that Arena is more likely to play DeLaGarza as a centerback than right back this season since Arena would never have paired DeLaGarza with a small partner in the centerback position. Thus, Van Damme will not only bolster the Galaxy backline through his own game; his inclusion will also enable DeLaGarza to maximize his contribution to the Galaxy’s defense.
Finally, one of Bruce Arena’s major criticisms of how the LA Galaxy concluded their 2015 campaign was that there was an edge missing from the Galaxy defense. Regardless of whether the Galaxy’s 2015 defense lacked bite due to fatigue, naiveté or complacency, it was worrying to see a heretofore solid defense leaking goals late in the season. On Wednesday, however, Van Damme cut through Santos Laguna’s players like a whipsaw blade – he broke up plays, tackled frequently, and positioned himself well to make a litany of timely headers.
Jelle Van Damme has been a literal beast out there.
Perhaps it is too early to tell, but there was a certain alacrity of movement and steel in Van Damme’s step on Wednesday night that hinted at a far more dominating 2016 Galaxy defense than the team enjoyed last season. If the Galaxy can find a cure for the malady currently plaguing their offense, then a defense secured by Van Damme augurs well for the Galaxy’s prospects of landing another trophy in 2016.