“He’s a beast. He’s a handful. He wants to score goals, he wants to get on the end of things, he’ll throw his body into plays he probably shouldn’t.” Mike Magee, LA Galaxy Midfielder

chimes teammate Mike Magee after the first Cali Classico of 2016 about his 6 foot 3 inch, 200 pound center back hailing from Belgium who’s known as the Machine. At 32, Jelle Van Damme has brought with him more than most bargained for as Omar Gonzalez’s replacement, with a methodical combination of long balls and aerial battling. It’s not quite a reminder of the days of David Beckham, but matched with the prowess of fellow new signing Ashley Cole, and Giovani Dos Santos’ emergence as a goal deliverer in Robbie Keane’s absence and since their attacking tactics are still building momentum, there’s a cautious but palpitable sense lingering in the air that perhaps this really is a comeback year Arena calculated for.

ON THE PITCH…

There’s little room for doubt that Van Damme comes replete with the trappings of his name, he’s a fighter, he’s aggressive, he’s not going to back down or turn a blind eye to a challenge on the pitch. Jelle Van Damme has played six out of seven matches under his belt now with MLS and he’s proven to be an effective weapon against attacks, most recently logging in 6 clearances in the box last Saturday against Real Salt Lake.

Van Damme's clearances against RSL Saturday, April 23, 2016 via MLS.com

Van Damme’s clearances against RSL Saturday, April 23, 2016 via MLS.com

He’s also been improving on his passing accuracy, long crosses and hasn’t given up on building a connection with his teammates on and off the pitch.

Van Damme's passing distribution April 15 in Houston (left panel), and April 23 against RSL (right panel).

Van Damme’s passing distribution April 15 in Houston (left panel), and April 23 against RSL (right panel).

Not to say his mistakes aren’t costly. He blames himself when it’s called for, like when he missed a tackle on a ball sent to Earthquakes’ Marvell Wynne in the 89th minute that resulted in a goal by Chris Wondolowski in the Cali Clasico that still ended 3-1 for the Galaxy. Afterwards he readily noted, “I mean at the end I always look at myself. I’m critical enough to say I didn’t do good enough. If I go down I have to be 100 percent sure I have the ball. I have to stay on my feet and just run with him. I missed it and they took the goal.”

He’s currently on yellow card watch after accumulating 4 (in 6 matches played).

One more and he gets fined $250 and, more importantly, suspended from next game unless he’s able to play in 5 matches without a caution. Especially under the cloud of Nigel de Jong already serving time for his controversial infraction, this would not be a welcome shift in the back line that has been one of the more consistent components of LA’s performance thus far with Ashley Cole, Daniel Steres, Robbie Rogers and A.J. DeLaGarza.

Jelle Van Damme is becoming a key player in defending on set pieces, something that was an inconsistent mess at times last year and even in the pre-season seemed to be a worry for the Galaxy. But rewind to the fateful moment when LA was eliminated from the playoffs in the Western Conference knockout round last year amidst 3 goals from Seattle that broke through inattentive and sloppy defending that had been building in 2015, cutting their season to the shortest it had been in seven years. Then view this collectively strong leadership at the back with LA’s most veteran player DeLaGarza, and a USL player rising through the ranks plus 3 veterans of the international game and Robbie Rogers and you ought to feel a bit confused by the depth, but hopeful about where it will lend a needed hand.

“I think when you see big dudes like that, all tatted up, bald head … you kind of assume they’re going to be a donkey. He’s the opposite. He’s clever, he’s got good vision, he can run with the ball and obviously he does dirty work.” Mike Magee, LA Galaxy Midfielder

Thus far, LA’s conceded 7 goals in 7 games. As long as Jelle can keep his battles for the ball clean and tone down his machine a touch, we should be able to keep him on the pitch. After all, losing him in the back and in the attack would mean losing moments like this would disappear:

“I think when you see big dudes like that, all tatted up, bald head … you kind of assume they’re going to be a donkey. He’s the opposite. He’s clever, he’s got good vision, he can run with the ball and obviously he does dirty work,” Mike Magee muses after the Cali Clasico.

FITTING IN…

LA Galaxy was once known for a rather lovely style of football – tiki-taka, or if you allow me a moment of exaggeration, the Barca of MLS. Yet we have transitioned into a free for all over the past 2 seasons to the point where a player like Van Damme doesn’t look out of place in a posh LA scene. Even his entry into the limelight showcased his “rebel” attitude with his “I Bite Back” t-shirt at his opening reveal to the media in the States. Really, he said it all with that shirt. The cloud of controversy from his comments to Onyewu in 2009 leading to an apology outside of the courtroom has diminished over time but has not disappeared. Yet he’s got a sense of humor and has been quick to fit in with his new team that underscores what he has put out on the pitch too. After all, how often does a player start out his first press conference by poking fun at a new teammate or play a national anthem to initiate a teammate who’s just scored his first MLS goal? You get the sense that Jelle Van Damme has been able to more than just fit in with LA Galaxy, he’s merged into it adding a bit more spirit to their chemistry off the pitch and therefore, on the pitch. Commenting on how LA’s progressed this season Van Damme asserts, “We get things that come more automatically, and [with more] trust and confidence and [we’ve gotten] to know each other better so positioning is better as well. We can only progress.”

“We get things that come more automatically, and [with more] trust and confidence and [we’ve gotten] to know each other better so positioning is better as well. We can only progress.” Jelle Van Damme, LA Galaxy Defender

But beneath that jovial demeanor lies a complex man. A player who appreciates the value of team victories and team lessons from losses. A man who takes the blame for plays on the pitch without putting forth excuses that ring of passing the buck. It’s far from beautiful soccer he’s putting on for the crowd. It’s necessary soccer. It’s what’s needed to win.

Jelle Van Damme plays vs Portland at StubHub Center. Photo by Brittany Campbell.

Jelle Van Damme plays vs Portland at StubHub Center. Photo by Brittany Campbell.

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