CARSON, Calif. – Giovani dos Santos’ game-winning goal against the Colorado Rapids was the end product of a moment of magic from what would normally be considered an unlikely source.
In the 55th minute of the LA Galaxy's 1-0 win vs. the Rapids in the first leg of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal, center back Jelle Van Damme picked up the ball on the left side of the box and used a silky touch to nutmeg Micheal Azira before placing a cross on the head of dos Santos.
Van Damme setting off on long mazy dribbles from the back is becoming a more prevalent feature of the Galaxy’s attack with each game, and is a trait that the Galaxy cherish.
“He’s one of a kind really,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said of Van Damme. “I’ve never seen anybody like that as a defender.”
“It’s more he’s going to suck someone in and we have to be ready for the ball,” Lletget added later when asked about playing with a ball-carrying center back. "We have to be ready for the pass because he can disguise passes. He can hit long balls. He did so well to even get the cross to Gio. I mean nutmegging the guy, it was just great.”
While Van Damme's skills on the ball have garnered increasing attention this year, he chalked up his special play to some good fortune.
“I just tried something and it worked out,” Van Damme said of Sunday’s pivotal moment. “Sometimes you need a little bit of luck and I tried something and it worked out. At the end it's always nice to get an assist.”
For Van Damme, however, venturing into the attack is nothing new.
“The last five years [at Standard Liege] I used to be a fullback and when I played that position I was pretty offensive,” Van Damme said. “Now I just have to pick my moments and I have to make sure that if I go forward, other players have to stay and have my back.”
The Belgian quashed speculation that his forays forward may lead to a change back to his familiar outside-back position.
“No. Let’s just stay in those positions,” was Van Damme’s response when asked if he had spoken with the coaching staff about a move to the flank. “We don’t have to start mixing up positions.”
While the crowd loves to see the former Belgian international jump into the attack, there is still an air of caution for some, especially since the Galaxy are heading into next Sunday's second leg at Colorado with a slim advantage.
“You’ve got to kind of keep the reins on the big guy,” forward 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 that he stays a little bit this next time.”
Van Damme agrees, though the former Ajax man certainly did not neglect his defensive duties in the first leg. He finished with three tackles and two fouls suffered while maintaining an 87 percent completion rate from his 71 passes.
“Now we go with a good feeling to Colorado,” Van Damme said. “Of course we have to know before we go there that it’s going to be hard and difficult, especially with the altitude and they have a very good home record. We have to be ready for it, I think, mentally and physically.”