LOS ANGELES — Laurent Ciman didn’t sleep on the December night he learned he had been dealt from the Montreal Impact to the expansion Los Angeles Football Club. Neither did his wife, Diana.
The trade, Ciman’s agent told a Montreal radio station the next day, “was a real kick in the teeth. Laurent and Diana were shocked.”
The reaction had nothing to do with the team or Ciman’s career. This was about family — specifically Ciman’s 8-year-old daughter Nina, who is autistic.
“The family is the only thing he cares about in life,” the agent, Jean Russo, said. “The rest is peanuts.”
The trade took the Cimans away from the specialized care Nina requires, and provided a reminder about how the Belgian star came to MLS in the first place.
Six months after the 2014 World Cup, a point in his career when he could have been seeking a lucrative deal with a major European club, Ciman asked Russo to reach out to the Impact.
It seemed a strange request from a player who was fielding million-dollar-a-month offers from Russian clubs. In Montreal, he got less than half that for the entire season.
But Nina needed medical care she couldn’t get in Belgium, and every time Diana researched better options Canada popped up. Montreal was especially attractive because Nina, like her parents, speaks French.
“One day, when your career ends, we should go live in Montreal,” Diana told her husband.
His response: Why wait?
“I jumped on the opportunity,” he said through a translator. “I would have quit soccer if I had to. But Montreal had a team, so it worked out.”
The sacrifice quickly turned to triumph when father and daughter thrived in Canada. Ciman, a center back, made two MLS all-star teams and was the league’s defender of the year as a rookie. The Impact, which had played just one postseason game in its history, made the conference semifinals his first year and the final in his second.
Nina, a dark-haired, wide-eyed little girl, also flourished thanks to a program that included music, horseback riding and one-on-one sessions with a teacher.
“The difference between Belgium and Montreal was like day and night,” Russo said. “You have nothing in Belgium, and you have everything in Montreal.”
A son, Achille, was born just before the move, and the Cimans built a house and put down roots in their new city.
Everything changed in mid-December when new Impact coach Remi Garde, determined to remake a defense that had given up 111 goals the last two seasons, traded Ciman to Los Angeles for two players the LAFC had selected in the MLS expansion draft.
For LAFC, the deal was a no-brainer: It got an experienced player who had been to the Olympics, a World Cup and the European Championships, in exchange for two players with 30 MLS starts between them.
“It wouldn’t be difficult for anybody to see what we see in terms of our motivation to go and get Laurent,” said John Thorrington, LAFC’s executive vice president of soccer operations. “He’s experienced, he’s a leader, he’s won and has a wealth of international experience that is rare in our league.”
But for Ciman, who looks like a cross between a bald Bradley Cooper and a skinny Tim Howard, the deal showed no heart. The Impact’s ownership, he said, had promised him he wouldn’t be traded or transferred until his contract extension — which paid him more than $661,000 last year — ran out at the end of 2018.
Garde traded him to Los Angeles before Christmas, giving him little time to move across country — and to another country — in time for training camp.
Nearly two months later, the shock — if not the anger — over the trade has worn off and Ciman, 32, who played 14 years in the Belgian first division before jumping to MLS, has embraced the challenge of building something out of nothing with an expansion club.
With LAFC, he’ll quarterback an experienced back line that includes Iranian World Cup veteran Steven Beitashour, a former MLS all-star, and U.S. international Walker Zimmerman.
“I’m going to turn the page on Montreal,” he said “and open a new page with LAFC.”
That means Nina, who is expected to join her father in Southern California soon, will need to find the same kind of care she had been getting in Canada.
“She’s getting better every day,” he said. “She’s making progress.”
LAFC assistant coach Kenny Arena, whose 4-year-old son Holden is autistic, is doing what he can to make sure that progress continues, advising the family on care options in Southern California. And two members of the team’s well-connected ownership group approached Diana at last week’s preseason game and promised to help as well.
“They are reactive,” Russo said of the club.
There are other challenges, though. For example, Ciman hopes to be called up for the World Cup this summer, which would take him away from his family and new club for as long as two months. And the move from Montreal has doubled his flight time to Belgium for training camps and to see family.
He’s confident it will all work out, but if it doesn’t, well, soccer is just a sport and what his daughter is going through is real life. He waves off talk of sacrifice by pointing to Diana, who gave up her career so her husband could continue playing a child’s game.
“Professional football is difficult,” he said. “[But] it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice.”
“Family,” he continues “is really the first thing.”