It’s official. After prolonged speculation, the LA Galaxy announced the departure of their captain, Jelle Van Damme on Friday. He was transferred to Royal Antwerp, in Belgium’s top division, for a fee of $235,000. The 33-year old defender was originally signed by the Galaxy on a free transfer before the 2016 season.
“We worked closely with Jelle and Royal Antwerp so that we could make this move possible for Jelle and his family,” LA Galaxy General Manager Pete Vagenas said in the club’s press release. “Our top priority remains the success of the LA Galaxy. We thank him for his time with our club and wish him the best going forward.”
Van Damme made 46 appearances, all starts, for the Galaxy. He scored a single goal and tallied five assists in the regular season. He was a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year in 2016 — an award he deserved to win — but was ultimately beat out by FC Dallas’ Matt Hedges.
However, his 2017 season will be marked by inconsistency, carelessness, and at times, a total lack of focus. He was tied for the league in yellow cards with eight (he’s received 11). He also led the league in red cards as three of his 11 yellow cards were his second, so they were converted to red cards. That left him suspended for five of the clubs 23 games this year.
But there were off the field issues as well. Van Damme was benched in the first half of a game by then Head Coach Curt Onalfo in the team’s 2-2 draw with Chicago in just the ninth game of the season. There were rumors that he was unhappy with Onalfo’s coaching decisions and, along with some fellow veterans, had been openly defiant of the coach.
In the end, it seems to have all boiled down to being unhappy living half the world away from his kids. With a recent separation finalized between Van Damme and his ex-wife and a somewhat restricted travel ability for his children, living in Los Angeles was just too far away from his family.
He spoke to MLSSoccer.com’s Charles Boehm saying “If I think about myself, I’m good in LA. If I think about my kids, I just want to go back. I know it got all in the press in Belgium and the clubs in Belgium know my situation, my team knows the situation – [LA] always respected my situation and they helped me out wherever they could. But I feel the second year is getting harder and harder.”
Perhaps all problems both on and off the field can be traced back to this situation. And it was enough of a burden that he simply couldn’t continue with it. For the Galaxy, his level of play wasn’t anywhere near where it needed to be and offloading him was almost a no-brainer. It had always just boiled down to timing.
Earlier in the week, it seemed the Galaxy were keen to hold onto Van Damme with sources close to the team saying they were attempting to have him remain in LA through the August 23 and August 27 games. But that situation quickly changed, and Van Damme has played his last game with the Galaxy.
Van Damme posted his feelings on his Instagram account saying:
“In life we are always faced with really difficult decisions. This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make as a player and a person. My family is the most important thing in my life and after two years away, I have decided to go back to Belgium so that I can spend time with my beautiful kids. I am going home to be with my family, but in the process, I am leaving the family that I have made here in LA. I want to thank the club for working with me to get me closer to my kids. I have loved playing for you, the supporters of this great club. I have loved serving as your captain while representing the LA Galaxy, the fans and the city of Los Angeles. The LA Galaxy and each of you will remain close to my heart. Thank you for all of your support. To my teammates…i’m gonna miss all of u mofo’s…for real!!!!To the fans…love all of u guys…❤️🙏🏻and don’t forget..LA is……🤙🏻”
He was an amazing character for fans to rally around, and when he was on, was simply one of the best defenders in the league. But his departure shouldn’t be a cause for sadness. His play never rose to that level this year, and he can be fingered for many of the team’s defensive lapses throughout the year. It might even be considered “good business” to change an expiring contract into allocation money and a reduction in Targeted Allocation Money the Galaxy won’t have to spend on him for the remaining 11-games.
MICHAEL CIANI AS A REPLACEMENT?
The only question remaining is whether or not the Galaxy will attempt to replace Van Damme with someone else down the remaining stretch of 11 games.
French newspaper L’Equipe is reporting that the Galaxy have finalized a deal for 33-year old Michael Ciani who is currently unattached to any club. Ciani could be brought in, even though the transfer window in Major League Soccer is closed because he’s a free agent.
The report says that Ciani has signed an 18-month contract with the Galaxy — a point of contention from what we’ve heard. He may have another two-year option (likely a club option) on top of that if the repots are true. The Galaxy may have originally requested just a six-month contract but now, according to L’Equipe, have completed the deal for three times that amount.
It was ESPN’s Julie Stewart Binks who originally pegged Ciani and Van Damme in what looks like it’s current configuration.
Sources say Michael Ciani deal to #LAGalaxy is imminent, will be finalized by end of day, & Jelle Van Damme has played his last game w/ LA.
— Julie Stewart-Binks (@JSB_TV) August 17, 2017
Speaking to sources around the club Corner of the Galaxy was told that if Ciani were going to be brought into the club, it likely wouldn’t happen until the week of August 20th.
Ciani most recently played with FC Lorient in the 1st division of French soccer. But his contract expired on June 30, 2017, and it seems no one has picked up the 6′ 2″ central defender as of yet. He made over 130 appearances with FC Lorient, in two different stints, and scored eight goals with the club.
But he also missed 36 days with injuries in just the last year. With at least one of those injuries have to do with the ligaments in his legs.
It’s unknown what his salary would be with the Galaxy, but the club needs veteran leadership on the backline. With Ashley Cole very unlikely to extend his stay past this 2017 season, the club will be relying on younger players who may or may not work out. And that’s going to be a big gamble going into a season that needs to go right.
Ciani provides a chance at catching lightning in a bottle for the second time — with the first being Van Damme. But it also represents taking another chance on an unknown quantity, at least in MLS circles.
Bottom line is that Vagenas and LA Galaxy President Chris Klein cannot afford to get this wrong. This can’t turn into another Jermaine Jones debacle – with nobody suggesting the money or the contract is anywhere near that level.
So while it’s a dead-end for the Galaxy with Van Damme, it could be an age of rediscovery for the club and Ciani. If he can prove himself to be anywhere near as beloved or as hardworking as the 2016 version of everyone’s favorite Belgian, perhaps the Galaxy, and their French connection (Romain Alessandrini, Clement Diop, and Bradley Diallo), can get the job done in 2018.