Steve Carrillo

Jelle Van Damme Must Lead LA Galaxy ‘From the Back’ in 2017

Carson, CA – One of the glaring weaknesses in the 2017 LA Galaxy, at least in the early days, was always going to be the defense and experience. With injuries to Robbie Rogers and Ashley Cole, the experience the team was counting on would be on the sidelines instead of patrolling them. Thankfully, there’s one guy who quickly acclimated to MLS and took the team upon his back in 2016 and in 2017 is now poised to be a difference maker. And that’s where the 33-year old Jelle Van Damme comes in.

At six foot three inches, he towers over most of the reporters in the locker room. And with his Herbalife sponsored Galaxy kit on, he somehow looks more foreboding than when he addresses the scrum, in a dress a shirt and slacks, after the LA Galaxy’s 2-1 loss to FC Dallas on Saturday. His shaved head and tattoos make him even more of a standout. He’s the last man you’d want to see walking down a dark alley toward you in the wee hours of the morning. But his smile and his calm, joking demeanor put you quickly at ease.

Mike Magee once called him a “donkey.” Joking that a guy who looks like that doesn’t seem like could be a technical footballer. Surely he’d be a physical bruiser. A man who thinks with his body and not his head. And while he has those elements evident in his game, that’s not the whole story.

Photo by Steve Carrillo
It was the Galaxy who persuaded Van Damme, who admitted to turning down the team at their first request, to come to Los Angeles — a city that Jelle had never visited before joining the club. It’s telling that one dinner in Belgium could persuade a man to uproot his life, but that’s the kind of guy Jelle is. He’s an explorer. Perhaps he just needed a reason and the calming reassurance of a man like Arena.

But once in Los Angeles, he’s taken to the league, the city of Los Angeles, and the LA Galaxy like few international players before him — maybe even more so than Robbie Keane who was often lauded for his love of MLS and the Galaxy.

He was named the team’s captain this year, after a 2016 season that saw him win LA Galaxy Defender of the Year and finish second in fan voting for LA’s Player of the Year Voting (Giovani dos Santos was first). He also finished second in the League’s Defender of the Year voting to FC Dallas’ Matt Hedges. Van Damme started 28 games and reached almost 2,500 minutes. And while he didn’t score any goals — yes I’m talking about goals and defenders — he hit the woodwork on set pieces and was generally unlucky, seeing several of his chances saved miraculously by great goalkeeping.

But what stood out the most in 2016, is how a central defender was very easily the most dangerous player on the field. He roamed forward when he saw space and wasn’t afraid to stay in the attacking zone after set pieces. He looked for space to exploit and generally shocked American soccer fans who were used to their defenders being boring, static, kick-the-ball-away-quickly type of players.

Van Damme leads from the back. Often willing his team to be better and try harder. And with a fairly old team in 2016, the team wasn’t up to his fighting calls; they didn’t seem to have the energy. But 2017 is a different team at a different point in their development. It’s a team that is looking for leadership and has the legs and youth to fight for victories. Something that was evident in the season opener.

“[I] Try to do my best every game and give it my all. I think that’s the minimum you can do as a player,” Said Van Damme. “It’s an honor to be captain. On my previous team, I was captain before. [And] I try to give 100 percent every game.”

Throughout the Galaxy’s loss, there was energy. And Jelle Van Damme could be pointed at as the reason for that drive. He ranged left and right, he crashed into tackles, and he competed for every ball. At points, he ran the full length of the field to get in on the attack. Something that might not always be smart, but certainly shows a “leadership by example” approach. Even if not everyone agrees that’s what is needed.

“I think sometimes you have to make smart decisions,” said LA Galaxy midfielder, Jermaine Jones. “Jelle’s a really important piece of our team. But in that case, I told him ‘have patience.’ You have to trust the guys in front. If you run in front in the last minutes or seconds I say ‘okay.’ But if there’s still time, you have to trust the guys in front… That’s not your job. Your job is to defend.”

Photo by Steve Carrillo
And Jones has a point. At 35-years old, a veteran of many leagues and of the U.S. Men’s National Team, and perhaps one of only a couple players the senior of Jelle Van Damme, Jones has every right to preach patience. But that doesn’t mean Van Damme is going to listen. And sometimes, it doesn’t mean he should.

Van Damme is a fire starter. He ignites a spark and lets the rest of the team burn. He makes a tackle to turn the play around. He provides a ball over the top that springs Giovani dos Santos into action. He helps build from the back, and more often than not, is the reason for a turnover and a quick break.

But he’s not perfect. He can be impatient, overly physical, and sometimes misses on the easy passes. And as much as David Beckham liked to hit the “Hollywood Ball” — the big pass that surprises everyone and creates immediate offense — Van Damme loves it even more. But those aren’t really flaws in technique. They’re more exploitations of creativity. He thinks differently. He thinks in “cans.” And seems to totally disregard the “can not’s.”

When Curt Onalfo was searching for offense late in the loss to Dallas, he moved Sebastian Lletget into a right back position — a position that no one can ever remember Lletget being put in. Lletget seemed surprised and so did Van Damme.

“I think Seba was a little surprised too. Looking at me like ‘should I player here?’ Fucking yeah! Do it! I mean it’s an offensive choice…” Said Van Damme after the game. “It was a bit risky but I think at that point you have to take risks.”

For a guy who has bought into MLS, who has bought into the city of Los Angeles, and for a guy who is just as much LA Galaxy as Cozmo — the alien mascot of the Galaxy who loves tacos and car chases — what does he possibly have to prove this season?

The only thing he’s tasked with doing is leading a relatively young team, and recreating his performance from the year prior. So basically he has to be the voice of reason for the glut of young kids the Galaxy have promoted to the senior team, he has to teach the position to three younger and less experienced backline members, and he has to repeat what was arguably the best defensive performance in the league last year.

And his success in shoring up the defense, in a time when injuries are keeping the team from full strength, may just be his first hurdle to clear. But he seems like he’s more than up to the task. And what he lacks in technical ability, he’ll make up in smarts, and the ability to fight through anything in his way.

If he’s treated right, Jelle Van Damme could retire with a Galaxy kit on his back, and go into MLS and team history books as one of the most influential captains and players in team history. That should be a goal for this front office — to hoist a number 37 into the rafters at StubHub Center in the Ring of Honor in five years or so. Let’s not rush it. We’ve still got a lot of Jelle Van Damme to enjoy.

And for fans, perhaps upset that favorites have disappeared, Van Damme is someone to put their trust in. He carries the crest on his chest, but more importantly, he carries the team and the city in his heart.