CARSON, Calif. – The LA Galaxy have changed wholesale since Jelle Van Damme arrived last season. Courted by Bruce Arena to play on a team with Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard, now Van Damme is the captain and veteran leader of new head coach Curt Onalfo’s team as several players from LA Galaxy II come in to fill gaps left by the Designated Players' departures.
The prospect of having to guide these younger players, especially in the early going with fullbacks Robbie Rogers and Ashley Cole still on the mend, doesn’t bother Van Damme. He’s was captain at his former club Standard Liege, in Belgium's top flight, and knows what the job entails.
“I think I’m pretty good at handling people,” he said. “Every other player needs a different approach. Some players you can go hard on them, other players you can’t. You have to help them another way. It will be fine.
“It’s an honor, taking over for Robbie [Keane], who was a great captain for this team. I’ll try to do the same: lead by example, be a good captain on and off the pitch.”
Onalfo not only looks for Van Damme to coach up the youngsters, but also to bring toughness on the pitch. It’s something he is known for, but not necessarily a quality ascribed to previous versions of the Galaxy.
“He’s got just such a winning attitude,” said Onalfo. “He’s a fighter, but at the same time he’s very likeable. He’s someone the players look up to. Whenever he steps on the field, he’s doing whatever he can to win. He’s done a great job in the preseason, and we expect him to do the same all the way through.”
So far in the preseason, Van Damme has been paired with Daniel Steres at the center back position, with Rafael Garcia and Dave Romney getting time at fullback with Rogers and Cole injured. Thus Van Damme may well be anchoring a backline on opening Day that – outside of himself – is made up entirely of Galaxy II prospects.
Players are often called on to grow up fast in MLS, but Saturday's season opener against an FC Dallas team already in ready mode from playing two CONCACAF Champions League games before the season started could be a trial by fire. Van Damme isn’t too bothered by the changes.
“I think changes are good sometimes,” he said. “We have a whole new coaching staff and I’m happy with them too. They are doing a great job during the preseason.”
As far as FCD are concerned, Van Damme sees their readiness as something exploitable more than an advantage. Dallas are coming off a midweek match in Panama, advancing to the CCL semifinals on a 5-2 aggregate despite a 2-1 loss to Arabe Unido in the second leg of the quarters.
“They played [Wednesday] and they’re traveling, so we have to try and take advantage of that as well," Van Damme said. "They’re a good team. I remember them last year; they’re an organized team. Should be a good game.”