Struggling Galaxy likely to make final playoff push without captain Jelle Van Damme

LA Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme, right, battles Philadelphia Union forward C.J. Sapong for the ba
Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme, right, battles Philadelphia Union forward C.J. Sapong for the ball in a game on April 29. The Galaxy are about to agree to a deal sending Van Damme home to Belgium.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

It’s been more than a decade since Sigi Schmid coached a team to the end of an MLS season without reaching the playoffs. It’s been nearly as long since the Galaxy missed the postseason.

Yet both those streaks are in danger of ending this year as the Galaxy and their new coach limp toward the regular-season finish line with only the narrowest of paths still open to the playoffs. And now that’s a journey the team appears ready to take without its captain, two-time MLS All-Star Jelle Van Damme.

The Galaxy are about to sign off on a deal that will send Van Damme home to Belgium, where he is expected to join Royal Antwerp of the Belgium first division. Van Damme, 33, who recently separated from his wife, former tennis professional Elke Clijsters, told the Galaxy earlier this summer he wanted to go home to be with his two young children.

The deal being discussed Wednesday would have Van Damme’s remaining in MLS through the end of the month, allowing him to play in the Galaxy’s next two games against Columbus and San Jose, then head home before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.


Last month, when rumors of a Van Damme exit first began to circulate, Galaxy President Chris Klein said he had no intention of letting his top defender go. He doubled down on that ahead of this month’s All-Star game, saying of Van Damme “he is staying. He is under contract with us and our intention is to keep him.”

Now they’re letting him go just as the team gears up for a last-ditch rush for a postseason berth.

The Galaxy, who don’t play until Aug. 23 in Columbus, are a point out of the Western Conference cellar and nine points out of a playoff berth with 11 games to play. To reach the postseason they’ll have to jump over three teams and overcome a double-digit goal differential — not an easy task for a team that hasn’t won since mid June and has scored one goal since mid July.

The numbers-crunching group FiveThirtyEight gives the Galaxy a 5% chance of making that happen.


Schmid has done his own math. And while that equation is far more favorable, even those numbers won’t add up if the Galaxy don’t start winning.

Gyasi Zardes advances the ball during a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match between the United States and
Gyasi Zardes advances the ball during a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match between the United States and Panama on July 8.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

“We have to win games,” he said. “We can’t tie games. We certainly can’t give away games at home.”

All of that has been a problem for the Galaxy (6-12-5), who are in a slump that is plumbing historic depths. Their eight-game winless streak is the team’s longest since 2008, they have a league-low one win at home and they’re on pace to break the franchise record of 16 losses in a season. As a result, it passed almost unnoticed when their latest loss, a 2-0 decision to New York City FC last Saturday, tied the team record for consecutive winless games at home with nine.

The Galaxy have blamed a season-long rash of injuries for much of that. What the injuries have really done, though, is expose a roster with little experience to withstand the rigors of an MLS season.

Scoring has also been an issue – especially of late. Although the Galaxy have played better under Schmid, who replaced Curt Onalfo as coach last month, they’ve scored just once in three games and have been outscored 20-8 in their eight-game winless streak.

But while Schmid called out forward Gyasi Zardes and goalie Brian Rowe by name after last Saturday’s loss, the problems go beyond just two players.

Midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who leads the team in goals and assists, hasn’t scored in nearly two months and Gio dos Santos, who led the team with 14 goals in 2016, hasn’t scored since May. In front of the net Clement Diop, who has shared time with Rowe, has the highest goals-against average (2.10) of any MLS keeper to play at least 10 games.


So if the season hasn’t exactly been a train wreck, it’s been a significant derailment. Schmid insists there’s still a viable path to playoffs though — albeit one clogged with games against Toronto FC, the league’s winningest team; defending MLS champion Seattle; as well as Houston and Sporting Kansas City, who share first place in the Western Conference.

Klein, who joined with general manger Peter Vagenas in leaning heavily on the Galaxy’s player-development system to remake the first-team roster last winter, agreed, saying he hasn’t given up on this season even as he appears ready to give up Van Damme.

One of the league’s top center backs, Van Damme has struggled through an uneven season, one that landed him an all-star selection but has also seen him lead MLS in both yellow (eight) and red cards (three). It was unclear Wednesday what the Galaxy would get back for him.

Klein and Vagenas both played on the 2008 Galaxy team, the last one to miss the postseason. It was also, statistically, the worst team in franchise history. So after that season coach Bruce Arena who, like Schmid, took over in midsummer, blew up the team, replacing 20 players, including Vagenas. A year later the Galaxy were in the MLS Cup final.

Klein says that won’t happen this winter, no matter how the season ends.

“This is not a team that we have to break it down and start over,” he said. “We have key pieces. That gives us a lot of encouragement in terms of where we’re at and how we build going forward.”


Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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