Laurent Ciman stepped in for the injured Omar Gonzalez in wins over D.C. United and New York City FC. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Laurent Ciman stepped in for the injured Omar Gonzalez in wins over D.C. United and New York City FC. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Veteran defender Laurent Ciman steps up for Toronto FC in MLS playoffs

TORONTO — Veteran defender Laurent Ciman has answered the call for Toronto FC in the MLS playoffs.

The 34-year-old Belgian international, who saw limited action in the run-up to the post-season, stepped in for the injured Omar Gonzalez in wins over D.C. United and New York City FC.

“Two phenomenal games,” said coach Greg Vanney.

“He’s come up huge for us in these last games,” echoed midfielder Jonathan Osorio.

Toronto FC heads to Atlanta next for Wednesday’s Eastern Conference final against the defending MLS champions at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Toronto is 0-1-2 all-time in the Georgia capital.

It’s been a challenging first season in Toronto for Ciman, a former MLS defender of the year with the Montreal Impact. Ciman’s wife Diana and two kids remain at the family home in Montreal while Ciman goes to work in Toronto.

He hopes that the family will be reunited in Toronto if he is back next year.

“It’s too difficult. I don’t see my son and my daughter and my wife every day,” he said in English. “(It’s) impossible for me.”

After a successful career in Belgium, Ciman opted to come to Canada in 2015 to join the Impact because of the support available here for daughter Nina, who has autism spectrum disorder.

He had three successful years in Montreal before an unwanted trade to Los Angeles FC, where he served as the team’s first captain in its 2018 debut season. LAFC sold him to FC Dijon of the French top tier in August 2018.

“For my daughter, it was a disaster,” he said of his move to France. “I decided to come back to MLS. I’m happy to have come to Toronto. Maybe next year I’ll play more.”

Canada has become a second home for Ciman, who is grateful for the care available here for his daughter.

“Your country is amazing for people like my daughter, (who are) autistic or something like that,” he said. “In Belgium, in Europe, it’s a disaster.”

In France, his daughter stayed at home “every day” because there was no suitable school available for her.

Nina is nine. Son Achille is six. They are enjoying friends and school in Canada, Ciman reports.

“My daughter is happy. Every day I see a smile on her face. My son too. My wife is so happy too … The life in Canada, in North America is amazing.”

That comfort level is why Ciman elected to keep his family at its home in Montreal for the time being. He sees his family whenever he can but the opportunities are limited. “Every time I have a day off, I go to Montreal.”

He lives downtown near the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, so hopping on a plane is easy. And he praises Toronto FC for doing what it can to give him time to go to Montreal when possible.

On the field, he made 17 regular-season appearances with 14 starts. But the July arrival of Gonzalez cut into playing time with the U.S. international partnering with Frenchman Chris Mavinga in the preferred centre-back pairing.

Ciman, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta have fallen down the pecking order.

Ciman saw just 117 minutes action in the last 12 games of the regular season, with 90 of those coming in a Sept. 7 start against FC Cincinnati. Contrast that with the beginning of the season where he started six of Toronto’s first 10 games and was subbed on for a seventh appearance.

“I’m honest, I like to play more,” Ciman said. “But OK, it’s the coach’s choice. Omar came and he’s playing with Chris and playing good. Maybe no more good than me, but he’s the choice of the coach and I need to accept that. And I work hard at training and I’m ready now.

“It’s a good atmosphere between me, Omar, Drew and Zav.”

All signs point to Gonzalez being ready to return from his hamstring injury against Atlanta. But Ciman is ready.

“I’m focused on Atlanta. If (the coach) needs me, I’m there.”

Ciman, who still has a home in his native Charleroi back in Belgium, played in both of Toronto’s games against Atlanta this season — a 2-0 road loss May 8 and a 3-2 win June 26 at BMO Field.

The Belgian signed in late December with Toronto, which conceded a franchise-worst 64 goals in 2018 when it missed the playoffs. He is making US$435,625 this season, according to the MLS Players Association.

While Ciman can be a riverboat gambler on the backline, he is a good distributor of the ball and has been around the soccer block.

Vanney has liked what he’s seen in Ciman’s post-season play.

“It’s his experience, his composure on the ball. I think he’s been really highly engaged,” he said.

“If anyone has ever had a knock on Laurent, it would be that he will lose concentration for a moment here or there, try an all-or-nothing play defensively. Sometimes he gets those and it looks great, sometimes he doesn’t and it’s not so great. But he’s been really hyper-focused and locked in the playoffs and therefore been really solid and you see a lot of his best qualities really rise to the top — I mean you don’t get to play for the Belgian national team unless you’re a spectacular player.”

Belgium currently tops the FIFA world rankings.

Ciman played eight seasons in Belgium’s top division — for Charleroi, Club Brugge and Standard Liege — and has won 20 caps for his country. He was a member of the Belgian squad that reached the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and saw action in Euro 2016.

He missed out on the 2018 World Cup, one of Belgium’s final cuts.

Such experience aside, Ciman also adds to the TFC collective away from games, according to Vanney.

“He’s got an incredible personality … a very playful personality that I think is infectious in our group. It’s something that our group needs at times, just to be able to banter, have fun, make something sometimes that is challenging or difficult into some kind of a game within the game.

“He’s always playing soccer tennis. There’s always some fun stuff in there that I think keeps the group light and balanced. And he does a nice job of that. It’s part of his leadership quality.”

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