Laurent Ciman - Jelle Van Damme - meeting up off the field

They are two of the best defenders in MLS and they just happen to be former teammates, compatriots and long-time friends. 


Friday night’s match between the Montreal Impact and LA Galaxy (10:30 pm ET | TVAS in Canada, MLS LIVE in the USA) will be the first time that Belgian center backs Jelle Van Damme (LA) and Laurent Ciman (Montreal) face off in MLS play. 


“Friday, the game will be intense,” Van Damme said. “We [the Galaxy] are a bit under pressure and we play at home. We must win, and we will do everything that is needed for the three points. I hope for him that he will be ready, although I know that he always is."

Ciman won MLS Defender of the Year honors in 2015, his first season in the league. And when Van Damme joined the Galaxy in 2016, he was voted the second best defender in the league (FC Dallas captain Matt Hedges was the 2016 winner). And their influence extended well beyond their defensive exploits, with Ciman often wearing the captain’s armband, while Van Damme was named Galaxy captain before the 2017 campaign.


Back home in Belgium they faced each other on a handful of occasions back home in Belgium — in six Belgian league matches between 2006 and 2010 — when Van Damme played for Anderlecht and Ciman for Charleroi and Kortrijk. They eventually became teammates with Standard Liege (2011-2015), a club they helped to the top of the Belgian Pro League standings with Van Damme featuring at left back and Ciman by his side at left center back. 


“We often talk to each other and we are good friends,” Van Damme told MLSsoccer.com. 


“When he was sent off against Portland [in Week 2], I called him since I also thought that both yellow cards were quite harsh,” Ciman said.

Jelle Van Damme vs. Laurent Ciman: Bald, Belgian best buds - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/VanDammeCiman.jpeg?KrBf_Rvn35IV8kwGEVVYJKuPzmUyAJHv

Since they lived in different parts of Belgium, they didn’t spend much time together off the field, “but as soon as we were reunited at the training center, we were very close to each other,” Ciman said. “We were always joking around. But once on the field, we were focused on the work we had to do, and on the effort we had to give. 


"We had particular fun on set pieces since both of us wanted to be the one jumping higher,” Ciman continued. "We never argued and were able to say things face to face. We played next to each other and that created a connection. We had a lot of mutual respect and we didn’t need to talk to understand each other: I know how he would play as soon as he received the ball, how he would react when the opponent sent a long ball, who had to go forward, who had to come back.”


Aside from their physical resemblance, the two players excel with a very different skill set. The predominantly left-footed Van Damme admits that Ciman is good with both feet, including placing “the ball wherever he wants with his left foot.” But Ciman confesses that he’d love to have Van Damme’s “physical impact and aerial qualities."


MLS Comes Calling


Van Damme vividly recalled when Ciman left Standard to join the Montreal Impact in 2015.


“My best memory with Lolo [nickname for Laurent Ciman] is his last game before he left for Montreal," says Van Damme. “We [Standard Liege] faced Anderlecht: the hottest clash of the season. He scored the winning goal.”


Of course, when one year later, it was his turn to be in discussions to join MLS, Van Damme checked in with Ciman before making the move. And the fact that Van Damme is now a league star doesn’t surprise Ciman in the least: 


“Jelle has a great versatility and doesn’t need a lot of time to adapt,” Ciman said. "He has defended the colors of a lot of clubs. He’s graduated from the Ajax academy, played in English Premier League with Wolverhampton, played with Anderlecht and Standard, he has had numerous interesting experiences.”

Jelle Van Damme vs. Laurent Ciman: Bald, Belgian best buds - https://league-mp7static.mlsdigital.net/images/VanDammeCiman2.jpeg

Among those experiences are the 31 caps that Van Damme amassed with the Belgian national team. But nowadays, it’s Ciman who is the starter with the Red Devils. And Van Damme is the first one to recognize the achievement.


“He’s a very good player, deserving of everything that has happened in his career, even with the national team,” Van Damme said of Ciman. "He has always been underestimated in Belgium. And on top of that, he has both feet on the ground. He’s a nice guy, normal and simple and yet what really distinguishes him is the fact that he’s a family guy. His wife and his two kids are his life.”


The mutual respect and admiration is real. But expect all the pleasantries — the two met face-to-face on Thursday in LA, 24 hours before the match — to be shelved for 90 minutes on Friday night. It’s a showdown which voters may remember when it comes time to Defender of the Year voting later this year.