Last Saturday, D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen had little option but to make a bold move in an effort to push his team toward a result against the New England Revolution. The Revs were up 2-0 at home, and had only gone further into bunker mode after hitting the jackpot early thanks to some unquestionably poor officiating. Olsen needed to go to his bench if his team had any hope of getting the goals it needed.
Olsen decided to switch to a 3412, and he had two players that fit the bill at attacking midfield. One was the highest-paid player on the team, a guy who only months ago captained his team to a road draw against England in Euro 2012 qualifying. The other was a journeyman that no previous MLS coach had trusted in a central role and who had been brought back to D.C. primarily to be experienced, reasonably-priced depth.
United fans can be forgiven for expressing shock as Olsen opted for Fred, the second of the above two candidates. This left Designated Player Branko Boskovic on the bench, where he was to remain for the full 90 minutes. Despite a shining resume, tons of experience, and a skill set that no one on the current D.C. squad can match, Boskovic has yet to appear in an official competitive match this season.
While fitness has apparently been the main issue, and Olsen has said that Boskovic will not likely remain on the bench for long, the decision to leave him out against the Revs was quite the shock. However, I think Olsen's first choice actually follows a sound logical path; where I'm a bit fuzzier is our third sub: bringing on Santino Quaranta in a central attacking midfield role while Boskovic continued to cool his heels.
It's important to establish what Boskovic is and what he isn't, especially in the context of the role he would have had to play at the time. Boskovic is often described as a "smooth operator" by anyone that writes about MLS, and it's an apt descriptor. Slick in possession, Boskovic's first touch and ability to use a simple turn to get himself out of tight spaces is something that we don't often see in MLS. In terms of dictating the rhythm of a game, there's no one even close to him for United in 2011.
When he plays centrally, Boskovic appears best suited to be an important cog in the machine, rather than a game-breaking "floater" (think David Ferreira, Javier Morales, and Cuauhtemoc Blanco). For him, the tactical system in place dictates his positioning; we're talking about someone who will only make a long run away from a central spot underneath the forwards when something is definitely "on." While Boskovic has proven adept at the late run into the box - his 1st minute goal in last year's Open Cup against Harrisburg is a perfect example - it's something he only does once the defense's attention is very much drawn another way.
This is a contrast with Fred, who offers a trickier, less consistent presence. Think of Fred as the Black-and-Red's wildcard: He's got a wide array of tricks, the audacity to try them, and can be very unpredictable. That has often come at the cost of reliability and turnovers, which is why most coaches have pushed him into a wide role. However, Fred is the kind of guy that can create something out of nothing; with one flick or one flash of creativity on the dribble, Fred can crack any MLS defense.
In the game against the Revs, United spent most of the first half controlling possession but creating little danger. The Revolution kept all four defenders home for the most part, and had three defensive midfielders sitting in front of that group to leave the center of the field as clogged as the Beltway at rush hour. This meant that New England could defend without ever having to turn and face their own goal, which is pretty simple for any team as well-drilled as Steve Nicol's bunch. The Revs were comfortable; United, predictable.
You probably see where I'm going with this. Fred was simply more suited to the task at hand in terms of playing style. While Fred wanders a bit and never seems to stop running, Boskovic would have stayed mostly in the middle, where he would have been constantly mobbed by the destroyers in the Revolution midfield. It was less a case of selecting the best player period, and more an example of picking the right player for a specific job. While it didn't provoke the needed two-goal comeback, it did help unsettle the Revs for most of the second half.
Where things got curious, as the title says, was the third sub. I have no problem with the tactical switch of moving to a 3142, leaving Dax McCarty alone in defensive midfield. Kurt Morsink had little to do at that point of the game; the few attempted counters from the Revs involved rushes up the wings, not down the middle. What confused me a bit was that Quaranta was chosen ahead of Boskovic.
Initially, I thought we'd see a 343, with Tino playing as a wide midfielder and Chris Pontius pushing forward. However, Quaranta ended up playing alongside Fred, which is exactly where Boskovic would have gone if he had been selected. I can think of a couple good reasons to go this way. For one, Quaranta is known to practice hard, and Olsen probably wanted to reward those good habits. There's also the size factor; as United's attack grew more desperate, adding a physically stronger, more aggressive player like Quaranta played a bit more to how the game was going.
That said, I can't say I agreed with the call. The desperation was predictable, and even with Quaranta throwing himself around, the Revs had a clear size advantage. There was little chance that lumping the ball to the top of the box was going to work against a team full of 6'-or-taller players who play that style much more often than we do. For my money, it was time to add some guile and thought to our midfield. We needed to boost the speed of play by pinging some passes around rather than play into New England's hands.
That sub also created some doubt for me about Boskovic's future with the team. He's clearly a high-class player, but does he fit the current team? I'm still withholding judgment until we hear that he's at or very near 100% in terms of fitness. In a few weeks, though, it will be time for Boskovic to truly earn his keep. If he can't force his way into Olsen's starting eleven with full fitness and over half a season of adjustment time, it will likely be time for both sides to agree that things didn't work. Until then, however, I hope everyone - fans, coaches, and Boskovic himself - can be patient enough to let this work itself out without rushing to a decision.
One thing you can say about Boskovic is he's handling the situation like a consummate professional (poor offseason habits notwithstanding). Many DPs out there would have sulked through the reserve game that was played immediately after United's 2-1 loss, but Boskovic played his socks off by all accounts and bagged a goal and two assists for his troubles. He also scored in United's previous reserve victory over the Columbus Crew, meaning that he's been directly involved in four of the reserve team's seven goals thus far. Boskovic is handling the situation in exactly the way it should be handled. In Olsen's 442, that likely means that Pontius needs to be at his best to keep his starting job under increasing pressure; that's the way things should be.