The unexpected driving force behind L.A. Galaxy's MLS playoff run

Jelle Van Damme
Jelle Van Damme has been immense in defense for the Galaxy. (AP Photo)

CARSON, Calif. – In a season that has seen designated players like Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard run hot and cold for the LA Galaxy, Jelle Van Damme and Giovani Dos Santos have been the most reliable presences on their respective ends of the park.

So it seemed fitting on Sunday that the two would combine for the goal that would give the five-time Major League Soccer champions the edge in their Western Conference semifinal against the Colorado Rapids.

[ MLS Cup Playoffs: Matchday tracker | Conference semifinal first legs ]

Van Damme put in another fierce shift in the L.A. backline, but it was one of his frequent marauding runs forward that provided the vital assist on Dos Santos’ match-winner in the Galaxy’s 1-0 first-leg victory at the StubHub Center. The Man of the Match performance continued what has been an impressive debut MLS season for Van Damme.

“I just tried something and it worked out,” said Van Damme, who nutmegged Rapids midfielder Michael Azira to get free and feed Dos Santos. “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck, so I tried something and it worked out.”

“I think it was a great play by Jelle, then he crossed it to me and I just tried to put my head and it went in,” Dos Santos said. “So I’m happy for that.”

Dos Santos, a Mexican international and product of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy, arrived at the Galaxy as a designated player with lofty expectations and a giant salary ($4.25 million guaranteed compensation for 2016). Van Damme, however, has been something of a bargain ($468,750) and a pleasant surprise.

Apart from a 2009 on-field altercation with former United States men’s national team defender Oguchi Onyewu, little was known in American soccer circles of the towering, tattooed Belgian who had prior stints with Ajax, Southampton, Wolverhampton and Standard Liege, among others.

Van Damme’s success with Los Angeles is perhaps all the more pronounced in light of the awkward spell Nigel De Jong endured with the club. The hard-tackling Dutch midfielder was acquired around the same time as Van Damme before being unceremoniously offloaded to Galatasaray last summer.

With the turnover in midfield and a back line that’s seen frequent rotation between the likes of A.J. DeLaGarza, Leonardo and David Romney, Van Damme has been mister reliable for the Galaxy at the center of defense. The 33-year-old’s strong performances have earned him the trust of head coach Bruce Arena, who named him captain against the Rapids.

“He’s done very well,” Arena said. “He’s getting more accustomed to our league, the position, which has been new for him. He played a real good game today.”

If not always spectacular, Van Damme has been a reliable workhorse for the Galaxy, starting 28 regular-season games and both postseason matches. While goal scoring has never really been his forte, Sunday’s assist was Van Damme’s fifth in Galaxy colors. In addition to his sturdiness at the back, a certain element of unpredictability going forward is part of what’s made him such a fan favorite at the Galaxy.

“You got to kind of keep the reins on the big guy, you know,” Galaxy striker Alan Gordon said. “He likes to get forward and the thing is he creates a lot of good opportunities when he gets forward. He’s comfortable in those positions and we were lucky to have him forward at that moment. We just got to make sure he stays a little bit next time.”

For his part, Van Damme seems to have a good grasp on when to take off on one of his havoc-inducing runs.

“The thing is if I go forward, the other guys have to have my back and have to know they have to drop or stay,” Van Damme said. “Now I just have to pick my moment. I have to make sure that if I go forward other players have to stay behind me.”

Van Damme has gotten better and better as the season has progressed. And his experience could prove vital as the Galaxy look to push on in the playoffs with a tough second leg against Colorado at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park next Sunday.

“Of course, we have to know before we go there that it is going to be hard and difficult, especially with the altitude,” Van Damme said. “They have a very good home record. So we have to be ready, I think, mentally and physically.”

With Gerrard’s contract up at the end of the season and Keane recently linked with a move into coaching, another offseason upheaval looks likely for the Galaxy. But whatever may happen on the transfer market this winter, it would be in the team’s best interest to do whatever is necessary to hang on to Jelle Van Damme.