When Dwayne De Rosario was lost for the remainder of the season last week with a knee injury, I pointed out that D.C. United would have to lean on Branko Boskovic, which they’d been reluctant to do all season.
So it came as no surprise when Boskovic, with his fifth assist of the season tucked into his pocket, was unceremoniously yanked in the 56th minute of United’s 2-1 victory over New England on Saturday. The choice couldn’t have worked much better on the night, as Boskovic’s replacement, Lewis Neal, produced the game winning goal, his first in Major League Soccer.
The explanation from United coach Ben Olsen afterward also made sense. But there was a familiar undercurrent of dischord showing that the same short leash and lack of faith D.C. United has had in Boskovic all season still exists.
Look no further that Boskovic’s expression of, “You gotta be kidding me, you’re taking me out this early? Again?” when the substitution was signaled by the officials. Boskovic’s only real display of emotion in a United uniform prior to Saturday was his surprisingly erratic throttling of Roger Torres in the referee debacle that was D.C.’s 1-1 draw with Philadelphia last month. In the Revolution game, he drooped his head, paid no attention the fives from the coaching staff, headed to the far end of the bench and kicked over a bunch of water bottles.
After the game, Boskovic made a bee line out of the locker room while most reporters were focused elsewhere.
To Olsen, the reasoning for the 56th minute change was simple.
“Well, one, he’s not that fit,” Olsen said. “He’s not 90 minutes fit. He’s had a while so we knew at some point that he was going to have to come off. It just looked like he was starting to fade a little bit. Branko, offensively, gives you some real magic, and the set pieces I thought he put in today were very good. But there was starting to be a cost to that. Lewis, I thought, really came in changed the game and slowed us down a little bit, kept possession, won some tackles, was pretty diligent in doing the work next to Perry. I thought that helped. And he gets the goal, which was great.”
There’s evidence to back up those assertions, too. Well, somewhat. Have a look at the chalkboard from the game, and it’s clear mostly that Boskovic wasn’t out of this world, but his numbers are skewed by the corner kicks and free kicks. The chalkboard also shows that Neal wasn’t nearly as impactful in his 34 minutes as Boskovic was in 56.
But the larger issue here is the 56 minutes. At this level, making a substitution at that point in a game is tantamount to telling a player he shouldn’t have been starting in the first place. The United coaching staff has called Boskovic unfit nearly his entire tenure in Washington – to the point where it’s easy to wonder why they continue to play him (and to a larger extent, why they signed and re-signed him in the first place, but that’s a discussion for another time). This time around, Boskovic has lost his 90-minute fitness thanks to one missed game at Real Salt Lake due to a stomach virus. Prior to that, he missed the Chicago game on Aug. 22 with a red card suspension, then played 39 minutes off the bench at Montreal and four against New York.
If Boskovic is unfit, then he’s unfit. If he isn’t, there’s almost nothing he can do to change the staff’s opinion. Olsen’s preference for work rate over upside is more than clear (related: Lionard Pajoy vs. Hamdi Salihi). Boskovic, who made his 10th start (20th appearance) of the year against the Revolution, has played 90 minutes once since the 2010 regular season finale (he missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury). D.C. United is 6-3-1 this season when Boskovic is in the starting lineup.
The effect of the decisions in the New England game could be immediate. With Neal scoring and playing decent – by no stretch does he provide Boskovic’s level of distribution – Olsen could decide on Thursday at Philadelphia (ESPN2, 8ET) that Neal and Perry Kitchen could be the new best midfield pairing, similar to how Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa was August’s flavor of the month. D.C. has lost the last two games when Neal started and won five of the last six when he’s come off the bench.
Boskovic, despite his flaws, remains D.C.’s most talented midfield creator without De Rosario. (If Olsen really wanted to be radical, he’d try Andy Najar as the No. 10.) But there’s no way that Boskovic plays his best looking over his shoulder at a coaching staff waiting for the first excuse to replace him.
Handling that dilemma, as was forecast last week when De Rosario went down, remains one of D.C. United’s biggest challenges down the stretch.