Adrian Heath – Minnesota United – Darwin Quintero – talking
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Warshaw: Benching a star player is perilous, but sometimes the right call

Darwin Quintero. Luciano Acosta. Alejandro Pozuelo. Paxton Pomykal.

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. 

All four players could be considered a key cog, if not the key cog, of their respective teams... and all have found themselves on the bench lately.

Their coaches have taken the greatest gamble in professional sports — taking star players out of the lineup.

Minnesota United started the 2019 U.S. Open Cup final without Quintero — their highest paid and most accomplished player — in the lineup.

Toronto FC put star playmaker Pozuelo on the bench two weeks ago.

D.C. United have only used 2018 MLS Best XI selection Acosta in the first XI once in the last five games.

FC Dallas have started their last two games without their most valuable asset and best player this season, Pomykal, in the lineup. The team noted Pomykal’s heavy legs as the reason, but it’s safe to say that if Pomykal hadn’t played poorly in the two preceding losses, nobody would have referenced the mileage on his body.

A lot of people will read this column as making something out of nothing. To those people, it’s never a good idea to take a team’s best player off the field. But that, to me, misses the best part of the sport. Good teams beat good players (at least over a large enough sample size). Soccer is this weird (cool) place in which it’s possible to better without using your most talented piece. 

As D.C. United manager Ben Olsen told reporters last month when he first pulled Acosta from the starting lineup,  “Ultimately, it comes down to [this] — is a player going to help us win this game? I try to boil it down to that. Are we better with this person in the lineup, or without them. And if you can just boil it down to that and not get caught up in who the player is, the emotions or the salary — that’s a tough thing to do.”

Star players influence a larger percentage of the game, or at least the game’s big moments; so their struggles have an oversized impact on the team. The sport is a constant balance of and battle between individual talent and the collective unit. A good collective needs talent, but the collective matters more than any individual.

If an individual, in any moment, isn’t helping the collective, he can and should be sacrificed. As Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney told reporters after he kept Pozuelo out of the lineup, “[Pozuelo]’s such a talented player, but there is also a team concept that has helped us be successful. He has, at times, tried to do too much with the ball.” 

The tricky part is navigating the full arc of the regular season and the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. The manager can never think one game at a time.

All four teams have a higher ceiling with those four players on the field playing at their best. How do you balance what’s best for the team now, with a recognition of what’s best a month from now? The manager has to do the balancing act of helping the team win this weekend, while giving the player a kick in the butt to raise his game, while sending a message to everyone else, while not ruining relationships for the long run. 

As an observer of the game, it’s something I’ve felt isn’t used enough. Zlatan Ibrahimovic often hurts the LA Galaxy’s collective; Michael Bradley hasn’t look like an elite player in over a year; Wayne Rooney hasn’t looked like Wayne Rooney for most of the season. Their teams have been stuck in second gear, and now all are closer to the playoff line than they should be. Would benching those players fix the problem? Who knows, but the managers have tried just about everything else. But, also, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to walk up to any of those three and hand them a substitute's bib.

As someone who has been in locker rooms, I completely understand why coaches hesitate to take that step. Quintero admitted after Minnesota’s Open Cup loss, “I was very surprised, I was upset, I was frustrated,” at being left out of the starting lineup. There’s nothing more awkward in a locker room than when the star player is upset. It’s the last choice a coach wants to make, the button he wants to push only after all others have been exhausted — it’s his or her biggest gamble. Many of the stars around the league have more star power than the coaches putting the names on the team sheet.

It’s a decision that could save a team’s season or send it crashing. It’s a decision that reflects the remarkable nature of team sports. And it’s a decision that’s going to determine playoff race outcomes across the league.

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