There is a non-trivial possibility that Ben Olsen is going to start the season with Andy Najar on the bench. I was listening to the Bring Back the Stripes podcast and Jason Longshore brought up this possibility. This may be an anathema to many D.C. United fans, but I think it could be beneficial, both for Najar and for the team.
I think that, for one season, this could be a good move. First of all, it protects Najar from the near impossible expectations people have been setting for him. Putting the weight of a franchise on a 17 year old is the way to create Freddy Adu’s, not long term success. Olsen has tried to temper those expectations, saying that Najar is going to have a more difficult year this season. But I think he wants to put Najar in positions where he can succeed and continue to grow as a player. Look at players like Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela, Bobby Convey, and Santino Quaranta, all players who had breakout seasons as young players and who we all thought would be stars. Szetela is out of the league, Adu is a soccer nomad, and ‘Tino almost destroyed his career; Convey has had a good career, but not up to the levels of hype that he was getting. We all want Najar to be a star, not only for D.C. United, but for whichever national team he ends up choosing. Letting him have a season, or even half a season, to develop from the bench could help him develop the right way.
Also, being able to bring Najar off the bench would allow United to bring in an attacking force unlike any they had last year. Last year, if United wanted to make an offensive change, their choice was to bring in whichever was on the bench of Kurt Morsink or Stephen King. This year, they have a force: the image I have in my head is the US Open Cup match against Real Salt Lake, when Najar came on in the 105th minute and immediately injected life into United, scoring within 2 minutes. With Najar coming in from the bench, they could, for example, take Clyde Simms off, slide Boskovic over to central midfield, put Najar on the wing, and go full out attack. Or they could take a tired striker off and put Najar in the hole. I see Najar playing the role that Juan Agudelo is going to play this year for New York; United just didn’t have the luxury of doing that last year. But without a Najar on the bench, there really is no game-changing attacking player there. Simms isn’t going to change the game if United is down a goal, and Quaranta showed us last year that he is better when he is on the field all the time and has the captain’s armband. Plus, I don’t know if Olsen would put the captain the he chose back on the bench.
Now, with all this said, would I be surprised to see Najar starting against the Columbus Crew? Of course not. Would I support that decision? Of course, it makes a lot of sense. If this happens, and one of the wingers struggles, they will always be able to put Najar back into the starting lineup. But it could also make sense to start the year with Najar on the bench as the game-changing super-sub, the role Jaime Moreno wasn’t able to fill last year.