CARSON, Calif.—The LA Galaxy knew what they were getting defensively when they signed Jelle Van Damme, but he's proving to be as dynamic on attack as he is dominant at the back.
The Belgian defender was pivotal in Saturday night's victory over the visiting San Jose Earthquakes, setting up Gyasi Zardes' goals early in the second half and decisively winning his battles at the other end as LA scored a 3-1 victory at StubHub Center.
Van Damme, brought in after Omar Gonzalez departed in December for Pachuca, has made a big impression with his new club, but his effort in the season's first California Clasico was astonishing.
He was nearly flawless at the back, at least until the closing minutes, preventing Quincy Amarikwa from making an impact, winning nearly everything in the air, and sending long balls that repeatedly put the Galaxy in dangerous spots.
The towering center back won a header in the goalmouth following a free kick to set up Zardes' 56th-minute opener, then sent a ball over the top that led to another Zardes strike six minutes later as the Galaxy, up a man after Simon Dawkins' red card at the end of the first half, pilled away.
“I think when you see big dudes like that, all tatted up and bald heads, you kind of assume they're going to be a donkey, and he's the opposite,” said Mike Magee, who also played key roles on the first two LA goals. “He's clever and he's got good vision, he can run with the ball, and, obviously, he does the dirty work as well. It works out nicely for us.”
Van Damme, who played in midfield and at left back during his time in Europe, is expert with the ball at his feet and deceptively quick, but his long balls offer a reminder of what David Beckham offered the Galaxy's attack during his tenure in Southern California.
Nigel de Jong, who played with Van Damme at Ajax Amsterdam a dozen years ago, knows well his teammate's qualities.
“The way he plays the long ball, and also the accuracy from the balls he's hitting,” de Jong said. “it's just phenomenal.”
The Galaxy had most of the possession all night, but they struggled to penetrate until Dawkins was sent off in first-half stoppage, a decision Van Damme considered “harsh.” After that, LA found space in the final third and took command with Zardes goals.
On the first, Magee sent a short cross toward the right post, and Van Damme rose above his marker to nod the ball back to the left post, where Zardes put it away.
“You put it in [the goalmouth], and you never know if it goes in or somebody touches it,” Van Damme explained. “And that's what happens.”
Six minutes later, Van Damme sent a line drive from just inside LA territory to San Jose's box, putting it almost onto Magee's foot. A defender got a piece of the ball, and Zardes placed it inside the left post.
“He played it perfect,” Magee said. “I would have been in, and a third guy got a foot on it, and the rest is history.”
Said Zardes: “I actually read it wrong, but, luckily, I have long legs and was able to catch it and just guide it toward the goal.”
Van Damme was unhappy with his play at the finish, when he left his feet and was beaten by Marvell Wynne, who set up Chris Wondolowski's 89th-minute goal to end LA's shutout hopes.
“That's my responsibility,” Van Damme said. “I feel quite sure about that. We shouldn't take that goal … I always look at myself. I'm critical enough to say I didn't do good enough.
“If I go down, I have to be 100-percent sure that I have the ball or I have to stay on my feet and just run with him. So I missed it, and at the end, we take the goal.”