CARSON, Calif — Benching a player in the first half of a game is as much a statement as it is a tactical move. It’s a move that LA Galaxy head coach Curt Onalfo has chosen twice this season, most recently this past Saturday, benching captain Jelle Van Damme during their game against the Chicago Fire.
Van Damme did not speak to media after the game, or even come out to sit on the bench in the second half. Talking to reporters after practice on Tuesday, he said he was aware of his mistakes, but didn’t fully understand the move.
“I don’t know,” said Van Damme when asked what he thought went into the decision. “Of course I was disappointed, but for me I had two bad choices -- I think the penalty and then the second goal the long ball I shouldn’t have played.
“So I made two bad choices and they ended up with two goals so that’s it. Those kinds of things happen in a game. Then the coach made a decision to sub me after  minutes, so I don’t know.”
On the penalty, Van Damme went for a slide tackle directly in front of goal, taking out the Fire's Nemanja Nikolic, then popped up with his hand raised to argue his case with the referee. On the Fire’s second goal, Van Damme played a long ball from the left side of the attacking half that proved unsuccessful, and was unable to close down on Nikolic coming back to defend the counter.
Onalfo said on Saturday after the match that he “expects players to be right” from the moment they step on the field, and that’s why he made the substitution. The move sent a message both about Van Damme’s free-flowing play, but also about the fact that no player is bigger than the team as a whole. When asked if he felt that Van Damme had received that message, Onalfo said, “Loud and clear.”
“There’s nobody bigger than this organization," he continued. "It’s our job to be ready from minute one, and it’s my job as the leader of this team and the coach of this team to make decisions and make sure we are.”
While Onalfo refused to comment on whether he’d had conversations with Van Damme since, saying those were matters best handled in private, the Galaxy captain offered a flat-out "no."
So how will this all play into his lineup against the New York Red Bulls this Sun., May 14 (FS1 and Fox Deportes in US, MLS LIVE in Canada)? As the Galaxy prepare for their first of four consecutive road games, nothing seems to be off the table as Onalfo looks to continue the pace of play he was glad to see in the second half against the Fire.
“We’ll play it day by day,” Onalfo said of the potential roster. “That was a decision we made on the night, the important thing is how our guys responded. Our guys had a very good performance."