Jelle Van Damme may be gone, but the legacy of his signing last season will live on with the Galaxy, who resume their long-shot quest for an MLS playoff berth Wednesday against the Columbus Crew (Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes, 4:30 PT).
The Galaxy (6-12-5), winless in their last eight games, trail Vancouver by 11 points for the Western Division’s final postseason berth with 11 games to play. Making things more difficult, they’ll be playing Wednesday without forward Gio dos Santos (hamstring), midfielder Jermaine Jones (foot) and Van Damme, who returned to Belgium last week after requesting a transfer to be closer to his children.
It was how Van Damme, 33, came to MLS, rather than how he left that is leaving an impression.
The Galaxy pioneered the signing of big-name, well-paid European stars such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard but the little-known Van Damme was a different kind of player when the Galaxy found him playing in the Belgian first division. He was a journeyman who wasn’t worth millions but was worth a chance.
The Galaxy signed him to a contract using Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), funds provided by MLS that allow teams to sign mid-level players while staying below the league salary cap. Van Damme, the second Galaxy player signed to a TAM deal, made the all-star team and was a finalist for the MLS Defender of the Year award. He also finished his first season as the team’s captain and helped change the way the Galaxy looked at player acquisitions.
“That proved to me the strategy that we needed to embark upon,” Dan Beckerman, president of AEG, the company which manages the Galaxy, said last winter. “Having balance with what we do in our roster. And using every tool in the tool it to build your roster … you wisely spend TAM money.”
It’s hardly a novel approach. Most MLS teams have built out the middle of their rosters using TAM.
The strategy was perhaps most notable with the Galaxy, which started last season with five World Cup veterans in Keane, Gerrard, Gio dos Santos, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong making a combined $15 million but ended it with Van Damme, making less than $500,000, as their best player.
So the Galaxy again tried that approach this season, using TAM to sign Jermaine Jones, Gyasi Zardes and Joao Pedro. It spent more wisely on designated players, too, getting Romain Alessandrini and Jonathan Santos for less than it had spent on Gerrard alone.
The Galaxy will enter this winter sitting on a pile of cash after getting $500,000 in allocation money from D.C. United for the rights to Paul Arriola and another $235,000 from Royal Antwerp for Van Damme. That’s not enough to sign another Beckham, but it could help land a couple of blue-collar game-changers like Van Damme, who started 46 games at center back in his two seasons in MLS.
“We had hoped that he would be playing against Columbus,” coach Sigi Schmid said of the Galaxy’s first game without Van Damme. “But [Dave] Romney and [Daniel] Steres are the guys there now. They’ve got to step up.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11