LOS ANGELES – Are there more iconic scenes to represent LAFC’s inaugural season than those that followed Laurent Ciman’s knuckling free kick from 35 yards out in stoppage time to win the opening match at Banc of California Stadium?
First, the Belgian center back raced to the sideline to embrace Bob Bradley and the technical staff. He then cruised down the touchline, hyping up the already-lit crowd before teammates had to remind his captain there were still a few minutes to be played.
After the final whistle came, he climbed onto the capo stand at The 3252 supporters section’s North End and lifted his Man of The Match scarf amidst plumes of gold smoke.
Considering those images and the substantial impact he’s made so far in 2018, it’s hard to believe the veteran defender has only been in Los Angeles for a few months.
To update the 10 Things About Le General since his move from Montreal, MLSsoccer.com sat down for an exclusive interview with Ciman and LAFC assistant Marc Dos Santos, who translated for the French-speaking captain and 2018 MLS All-Star.
Not always a defender
Ciman is among those players who appear born for their position. From his daring goal-line clearances to his brutal slide tackles, the 2015 MLS Defender of the Year is a natural along the backline. Oddly enough, though, he started playing as a striker.
Young Ciman terrorized defenses on the futsal courts in Belgum’s Hainaut province. Eventually, he developed the habit of retreating to recollect the ball when his team lost possession.
"At a certain age I could both defend and attack at the same time,” Ciman said of those early playing days.
Once he moved into full 11v11 matches, he assumed a defensive midfielder role before eventually stepping in at center back.
“I think all these tools of playing as a forward and then a defensive midfielder gave me the technical ability today on the ball.”
Power + technique
Part of Ciman’s technical ability is his free kick prowess. MLS teams — including his former club the Impact and Seattle during that home opener — are now on alert any time the LAFC captain hovers above a set piece outside the area.
“You have to hit it with a certain strength,” the defender explained, pointing to a space right on the instep-side of the laces on his boot. "But I can’t hit it very, very strong. If I do, the ball is going to go far."
Bringing to mind other defenders known to score off long-range dead-ball situations — like Roberto Carlos and David Luiz — the Belgian notes that everyone has their own technique to strike that balance between power and precision. But he’s confident in his approach.
In fact, Ciman thinks his tally should be even higher, lamenting a blast that struck the post against NYCFC: "I could have scored another one for sure.”
Ciman’s heroics in the final seconds of LAFC’s home opener meant journalists in the land of movie magic didn’t have to stretch far for Hollywood references.
And though he’s had to adjust to life outside the Francophone regions he’s accustomed to, film is a language the center back understands.
“I relate to movies that are historical and movies that are adventurous,” said Ciman, rattling off films like "300" and "The Avengers" among those that fit his taste, though one film that towers above the others.
“If I had to choose one that made a mark, it would be 'Gladiator.'”
After Ciman scored the first goal at Banc of California Stadium, Rage Against The Machine’s “Guerrilla Radio” poured out of the sound system in what has become a tradition for LAFC goals at home. Immediately before opening kickoffs, Ciman will often pound his chest and psych himself up for the contest.
From these moments, one might assume the defender fits a rock or metal affinity. Instead, he listed French-Senegalese-Belgian rapper Booba as a favorite artist.
One of the most popular French rappers in history, Booba references footballers with the same dexterity American MCs might with NBA players — a 2010 track contained name-drops like former French national-team coach Raymond Domenech and Cameroonian great Samuel Eto'o.
Atop Banc of California’s North End, there is a black and white “Général Ciman” banner. Sent by Montreal Impact supporters for use in the 3252, it also features the LAFC captain’s face.
Whether in Belgium, Canada, or the United States, this is the moniker Ciman is known by across the footballing world.
However, to friends and family — as well as teammates and club staff — the center back goes by Lolo, a common nickname for Laurent. He’s been called Lolo “since as long as I can remember.”
Though it might not be as imposing as the warrior-esque ‘Le General,’ ‘Lolo’ has an endearing ring to it that’s more in line with the lighthearted tone the LAFC captain often employs in the locker room.
Despite his occasional pranks, Ciman takes the role of team captain seriously.
“It’s not easy to be a captain of a team like this,” he said of the job. "There are a lot of good players and a lot of respect in the dressing room."
Included in his captaincy commitment is the task of timekeeping, which on the surface he enjoys giving tardy players flak about – but beneath the rule lies a serious message that comes with consequences.
"I’m the watch keeper to fool around,” he said, “but at the same time, when I’m late I get fined like the others.”
Leading by example is part of an environment the Belgian tries to build camaraderie around.
A decade with Belgium
Ciman with Belgium | REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Since playing with his country’s Under-21 team as far back as 2004, the center back has spent the better part of a decade firmly in his country’s ranks.
Ciman was part of Belgium’s 2008 Olympic team, which included the likes of Marouane Fellani, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen. In fact, he scored the consolation goal in the Red Devils’ 4-1 semifinal loss to Nigeria.
“For me, there is always a lot of pride involved,” said Ciman. “Even if it’s just a call-up. The talent pool that’s grown now. It’s bigger and bigger every time."
World-class players that came in the generation that followed his include Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. The fact that most of his competition for a spot on the Belgian team sheet ply their trade for UEFA Champions League clubs is not lost on Ciman.
"I didn’t come up playing in big clubs,” he said. “All of my decisions were personal decisions for my family. I had to choose the right club, not the big club, so for me to be in the types of clubs I’ve been in and still be called in was a big sense of honor."
No work at home
The family-oriented decisions Ciman has made in his choice to move to MLS are well known —namely treatment for his daughter Nina, who lives with autism.
He makes no secret that his priority is as a family man first and Ciman possesses a firm sense of division between his work and professional life.
That means there will not be much, if any, football in the home — not even in digital form.
“When I leave training sessions, I try to forget everything related to soccer and not bring soccer home,” he said. “I’m not the type of guy who is going to go play FIFA.”
Loves the “Lionel Messi of basketball”
That’s not to say that Ciman keeps sports entirely out of his home. In Montreal, he developed a “natural” attachment to hockey and the Montreal Canadiens, who’ve won a league-high 24 NHL championships.
In Los Angeles, he’s joined teammate Carlos Vela in appreciation for the NBA.
"I like basketball,” said Ciman. “I have a little hoop where I play sometimes with my kids.”
Of course, being a part of LAFC has meant meeting owner Magic Johnson, but the club has also already connected Ciman with current NBA stars, including LeBron James, who is joining the nearby Los Angeles Lakers.
“I like watching James Harden or somebody like Steph Curry that does special things,” said Ciman. “Curry is the Lionel Messi of basketball.”
In the immediate aftermath of his move to Los Angeles from Montreal, Ciman spent time in the city alone, working through the shock of the trade, recovering from an injury and getting acquainted with his new club.
"Now that my family is here, I want to take the time to know more about the city,” he said, emphasizing that he looks forward to exploring more of Los Angeles outside of the Palos Verdes community they’ve decided to call home.
The Southern California climate has allowed the Ciman family to enjoy one thing they normally wouldn’t have been able to in Canada, or even Europe, during the early spring months.
“We have not had the chance yet to go a lot to the beach but we have a swimming pool,” he said. "Nina and Achille love water.”