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Soccer

Jelle Van Damme has Galaxy on edge of playoff breakthrough

Jelle Van Damme, Olmes Garcia
Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme, left, protects the ball from Real Salt Lake forward Olmes Garcia during their MLS playoff game on Oct. 26.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme speaks four languages and understands a couple more, which is natural for someone who grew up in Belgium.

While his English vocabulary remains a work in progress, he’s already mastered a number of colorful — if unprintable — terms for use in the team’s pregame huddle.

“When I’m fired up, when I hyped up, that’s the way I speak,” Van Damme said. “I think a lot of guys speak like that when you’re hyped up.”

Van Damme’s actions have spoken even louder than his words, making him a big reason why the Galaxy need only a draw in Sunday’s playoff game at Colorado (11 a.m., ESPN, ESPN Deportes) to reach the MLS Western Conference finals for the sixth time in eight seasons.

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The Galaxy’s 1-0 win last week at StubHub Center gave them a big edge in the two-game series with the Rapids, which will be decided by aggregate goals. With road goals serving as the first tiebreaker in the MLS playoffs, even a one-goal loss Sunday would be enough to send the Galaxy through, provided they also score.

If the Galaxy and Rapids are tied on aggregate goals after 90 minutes and the tiebreaker doesn’t resolve the deadlock, the teams will play 30 minutes of extra time, followed by penalty kicks if necessary.

Van Damme is hoping to avoid a stumble that would cost him a chance at an MLS Cup.

“I came here to win stuff,” he said flatly.

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He’s unlikely to be disappointed. In addition to competing for a league title, Van Damme, already an MLS All-Star, is also a finalist for two individual awards: MLS defender of the year, which will be announced Friday, and the league’s newcomer of the year, to be revealed Nov. 21.

Not bad for a 33-year-old learning a new position.

A forward in his youth and a midfielder early in his professional career, Van Damme played left back for most his five seasons with Standard Liege in the Belgian first division. However, for the Galaxy, Van Damme’s size (at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds he’s the team’s biggest player) and physicality made him a perfect fit at center back, a position he had rarely played.

The move from the left side of the back line to the center is nuanced, like a corner outfielder moving to center field or a cornerback sliding over to free safety. The purpose is the same — play defense — but some of the responsibilities change. For example, left backs frequently push forward on the attack while center backs have to stay home, clearing crosses and marking the opposing team’s top scorers.

“We saw a lot of qualities that he could transition into a center back,” said Galaxy assistant coach Kenny Arena, who went to Belgium to scout Van Damme last December after the player’s agent expressed interest in a move to MLS. “It might take some time, but we thought by the middle of the year he might be pretty good.”

It didn’t take nearly that long. Van Damme established himself as a punishing presence in his first MLS start, at Colorado, where he helped frustrate the Rapids until the final minute of stoppage time when they scored the game’s only goal.

With Van Damme wearing the captain’s armband — and leading the pregame huddle — the Galaxy defense has hit stride in their last three games, giving up just a penalty-kick score. They’ll need to muster another stout effort Sunday, since Colorado has allowed only seven goals in 17 home games this season.

“Are we surprised? No,” Galaxy President Chris Klein said of Van Damme, who signed a two-year contract in January. “We’d like to think it was the product of us doing our homework and finding the right player.

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“But with how well he’s done — both his productivity on the field and how he’s integrated into our culture — that’s a little bit of a surprise. Just because it’s been so good.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11


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