MONTREAL – For Laurent Ciman, this is just the beginning. But to be fair, that was some beginning.
In his first MLS season after a decade spent in Belgium’s top division, Ciman won the MLS Defender of the Year award. He became just the fourth debutant to win the award after John Doyle in 1996 (the inaugural season), Lubos Kubik in 1998 and José Gonçalves in 2013.
Solid defensively, Ciman also charmed the Montreal faithful with his bold approach and offensive contribution – two goals and two assists. That’s reason enough to be satisfied with one’s first steps in MLS, and Ciman is pleased, indeed. But there’s a lot more where that came from, he assured reporters on Friday.
“I may have won this trophy this season, but I want even more next year,” Ciman said. “Collectively and individually, we’ll try to reach an even higher level compared to this year.”
Montreal have already taken a big step from last season to this, in no small part thanks to Ciman. They’d shipped 58 goals without him in 2014. They conceded 44 this season. They’d finished bottom of the Supporters’ Shield Standings in 2014. This year, they made it to third place in the Eastern Conference and reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the Audi 2015 MLS Cup Playoffs.
A leader in the backline from the moment he first stepped on a North American field, Ciman was also crucial to Montreal’s Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League run. He played every minute in the run through the knockout stages that ended with a heartbreaking cup final defeat to Club América. As early as the first leg of the quarterfinals, opponents Pachuca had grasped how important Ciman would be; late in the game, they went for him, trying to make him lose his cool or at least pick up a caution.
“Laurent is a great defender,” head coach Mauro Biello said. “He came here with great quality. He showed what he could do straightaway. It’s not easy to come here from a European league and adapt quickly to a new style, new teammates, a new coach, a system, a new life, all of that. Laurent came in and integrated the group with his personality and on-field qualities.
“I’m really happy that he was elected Defender of the Year,” continued Biello, whose interim tag was removed last week. “He deserves it. He’ll improve again. Even he still has that potential for improvement.”
The only blemish on Ciman’s record was the discipline. Three times in a five-game span in August and September, Ciman got ejected for second yellows.
“I know there’s this thing with cards, but it’s only a matter of adaptation,” Biello said. “A foul, in one league, isn’t necessarily a foul in our league. It’s adaptation. He learned from that. He grew. I expect a player like Laurent to keep being a leader for this team.”
A leader he was. Named among the MLS All-Stars, Ciman wore the captain’s armband for the entire second half against Tottenham Hotspur on July 29. Spurs kept a clean sheet in that half. So did the All-Stars. Not only was Ciman dominant in the back, but he also delivered a near-assist to Jozy Altidore late on with a magnificent cross from the right.
Signed on January 22, Ciman moved to North America to seek better care for his daughter Nina, who is affected with autism. Apparent misunderstandings over the responsibility for Nina’s health care have been settled, said Ciman. The family is happy in Montreal. Nina is making progress every day. Ciman wants to carry on playing for the Impact.
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“I have a contract,” he said. “In football, you never know, but it’s all behind me. I want to look ahead. I want to be calm. So does my wife. We want to move forward serenely. We have to move on from that. Some Belgian media also heightened that, altering what we’d said. You know very well how easy it is to write a headline and ride on that. My relationship with the Impact is very good. Hopefully, it’ll be as good in the future.”
A Defender of the Year title can only do good to that relationship – and the laureate is keen on strengthening his connections with his teammates, too.
Goalkeeper Evan Bush is, to Ciman, one of the best netminders in the league. The reliable Donny Toia would “run into a brick wall” for his team. Center backs Victor Cabrera and Wandrille Lefèvre worked hard to strike partnerships with Ciman. Ambroise Oyongo, once he joined Montreal – “because it did take a while,” Ciman quipped – proved that the team could depend on him no matter what flank he guarded.
“There isn’t only me in defense,” Ciman said. “Even [defensive midfielder] Marco Donadel helped us greatly. All that was missing, I think, were some reflexes between us all, as well as some confidence. There are quite a few young players, too. When I came in, I brought my experience, and I tried to boost their confidence. They were here because they had the quality.”