CARSON, Calif.—Ashley Cole is a World Cup veteran who has starred for Arsenal and Chelsea, spent a year and a half at AS Roma, and was considered the world's finest at his position not so long ago.
It makes it tough to walk down a London street without being bothered – anywhere in England, really; perhaps anywhere in Europe – and that hasn't changed entirely with his move to America.
There are lots of soccer fans in Southern California, so the English defender is going to be recognized on occasion around these parts, and, he reports, he has been.
“You've got a lot of English people coming over here, and, of course, now soccer is getting bigger in America, so they still recognize you,” said Cole, one of three European veterans to step into the LA Galaxy's lineup this year. “But if you've got someone like Brad Pitt next to you, then no one's going to care about the little soccer player.”
Saying hello, signing an autograph, posing for a photo here and there: It goes with the job, at this level, but Cole, Dutch midfielder Nigel de Jong and Belgian center back Jelle Van Damme have found a sense of freedom that wasn't possible in Europe, with its wall-to-wall soccer culture.
De Jong says though he can “blend in with the regulars here in L.A. and can walk to supermarkets and do my stuff,” he still gets recognized, mostly by Latino fans.
“It's a different lifestyle here,” Cole said. “Of course, you can walk around, you can go to restaurants, and, kind of, no one bothers you.”
It's the “best part” about coming to the Galaxy and MLS, Van Damme says.
“Just more relaxed than what I'm used to,” he said. “You can go wherever you want, nobody recognizes you or talks to you about soccer or asking jerseys or tickets of whatever. The life is better.”
What's not to like about L.A., they ask?
“People are happier here,” Van Damme adds. “Because of the weather.”
De Jong, who like Cole had previously spent time in Southern California, calls the year-round warmth “fantastic.”
“It just makes people happy and have a smile on their face as soon as you walk out the door of your house,” de Jong said. “I think that's a big plus.”
All three of them, brought to LA following last year's disappointment as the Galaxy seek a fourth MLS Cup title in six years, are having a blast, especially now that their families are arriving.
De Jong's wife, Winonah, 9-year-old daughter Isaura and 7-year-old son Kyan arrived in California last week.
“They were so excited, and we tried to do everything in a week, but we can't, so we just have to stretch the things out for the kids to do,” de Jong said. “[Disneyland] was the No. 1 thing that they asked straightaway. I took them there already for a two-day trip, so they love it out here.”
Cole's girlfriend, Sharon Canu, and their newborn son are due Monday. Van Damme's wife, Elke, brought 6-year-old son Cruz and 5-year-old daughter Cleo to L.A. during the kids' spring break from school, but they'll soon head back to Belgium and return to California in July. He's not sure whether they'll go to school here next fall.
Being without his family hasn't been easy.
“From seeing them everyday, every morning I bring them to school,” Van Damme said. “But I knew before when I made a choice [to join the Galaxy], so you have to just accept it and go through it.”
They like the soccer here, too.
“I think I've definitely come to the best team [in MLS]. I feel like we're the best team,” Cole said. “Of course, we need to gel a little bit more [and] it's a very tough league. I didn't expect nothing else, to be honest.”
The biggest differences on the field are stylistic. MLS is an athletic, physical league in which any team can beat any other. It's not as tactically sophisticated as soccer in Europe.
“I think that's pretty much true, but that isn't always a bad thing,” Van Damme said. “I prefer it this way than when two teams, as happens a lot in Belgium, [play entirely] tactical and don't come to play and to just sit down and go for the draw or whatever. Especially the small teams.
“I prefer the more open game – that's what we're seeing here in MLS.”
De Jong notes that there's a “different sort of circumstances,” with a wide variety of weather conditions, high altitude in Denver and Salt Lake City, artificial surfaces in some stadiums, and much longer travel.
“It's all the things combined that are a little different than Europe, but I like it here,” he said. “It's not as tactical as Europe, where in Europe we really focus on the system and main coverage and playing your 1-v-1s and [team shape]. That's a little but less here in MLS, especially when you're looking at the long stretch of the game. Like in the second half, a lot of teams blow up, physique-wise. That's a little bit different, but apart from that, I like the MLS so far.”