Whatever D.C. United signed Branko Boskovic and Hamdi Salihi to be, it hasn’t exactly turned out that way.
But Boskovic’s mixed treatment and Salihi’s lesser role despite his Designated Player salary took a back seat at D.C. United over the latter part of the MLS season.
With United closing ranks and grinding its way into the postseason and all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, the dramatic run that has overshadowed clear missteps in scouting that the team can ill afford to take again if it is going to have long term success.
In the meantime, Boskovic (one goal, seven assists) and Salihi (six goals) have both embraced their first MLS playoff experiences and their roles heading into Sunday’s crucial second leg against Houston.
“It’s exciting,” Boskovic said. “For me it’s fantastic, something I’ve done for the first time in my life. It’s interesting, a small tournament competition.”
Boskovic opted against playing with the Montenegro national team in order to demonstrate his commitment to D.C. United. He scored on a rare diving header to give United a 1-0 victory over Chivas in September and then registered assists in each of the final two regular season games. His magnificent blind pass to Lewis Neal to clinch a 3-2 win over Columbus on Oct. 20 won’t soon be forgotten in RFK history, and then he found Lionard Pajoy at the near post for the only goal United needed to ensure a season-ending 1-1 tie at Chicago and the second seed in the East – and what amounts to a chance to host MLS Cup if they beat the Dynamo.
He’s started all three of D.C. United’s playoff games, playing a midfield role in a possession-oriented 4-5-1 formation.
“Now I’m happy because when I decide to not go [with Montenegro], to stay with the team, to sign new contract, everything, I’m happy because all this time I know for what I risk everything there,” Boskovic said. “We have good results, we finishing good in the Eastern Conference, the playoffs, and we still have a chance. I think this was a good season.”
Salihi, who pounced on the gamewinner at Toronto on Oct. 6 in trademark fashion, hasn’t figured at all in the playoffs. But he still understands the job he has, and the two-goal deficit D.C. faces on Sunday could make his uncanny ability in the penalty area an asset.
“Everybody come here to help to go in playoffs, and everybody want to play more and more,” Salihi said. “But normally everybody have to know that he is part of this team, and it doesn’t matter where he is on the field, on the bench or in watching, everybody have to give for the team.”
Boskovic said he is confident in D.C. United’s patient game plan for Sunday and that he doesn’t worry that the team has only been able to score more than one goal once in the past nine matches.
“I’m happy because we create [in Houston] a lot of chances also,” he said. “We have 1-0, maybe referee make mistake, that give us confidence. We know when we play at home we’ve created a lot of chances. I just want this team to be a little bit relaxed in that way. Normally we must have discipline and we must be compact and defend our goal. But just relax and play our game because I know we going to create some chances.”
He also said his relationship with D.C. coach Ben Olsen has been strengthened since September, when he voiced complaints over being called “not 90-minutes fit.” Maybe it was only by accident due to the injuries suffered in the first leg against Houston, but Boskovic played 90 minutes for the second time all season at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“Everything is normal in last couple of games,” Boskovic said. “I’m playing. I also give my maximum, and I’m happy Ben after all this believe in me and give me the chance. Everything is better. When you play, everything is better.”