Heading into the start of the 2012 season, we didn't really know what to expect from Branko Boskovic.
The last we saw of Boskovic, he was destroying the New England Revolution in a U.S. Open Cup match, to the tune of multiple goals and several other chances. Surely you remember, because you were there. We were all there. And that's the Boskovic we were hoping to see at the start of 2012, not the Boskovic who had so little impact when he first entered the league.
So which did we get? Did we get Brankostock Branko? Or did we get out-of-shape MLS-incompatible Branko?
We got something in between. A little of each, I suppose.
And when D.C. United needed to make a decision on Boskovic's future at the beginning of July, he was just starting to round into form. We were just starting to get the Boskovic that we'd been paying for for two years. Boskovic then showed his loyalty and earned our eternal respect by accepting a pay cut to stay in D.C. and finish what he'd set out to do - get this team into the playoffs.
Well, the team got back into the playoffs, and Boskovic was certainly a part of it. How big a part? Boskovic had a goal and seven assists during the regular season, and then added another goal in the playoffs.
We're here today though to ask what would have been different without that goal and seven assists? What if United had not re-signed Boskovic?
The last two times that we've asked a similar question, we've reached the same conclusion. We decided that without Lionard Pajoy, United probably would have squeaked into the playoffs, but not reached the Eastern Conference Finals. And that the same would have happened if Dwayne De Rosario hadn't suffered an injury, forcing the team to adopt a more conservative style. Without Boskovic though, I'm not so sure. Without Boskovic, anything could have happened.
Because if United had not retained Boskovic for the balance of the 2012 season, we can't really say if he would have been replaced. Since the front office has mentioned that there are younger and cheaper versions of Christian Gomez out there right now, it's conceivable that United was considering signing one of them instead of Boskovic this summer. In the end, the team chose to keep the known quantity in Boskovic rather than an unknown quantity with Gomitoito.
Did it pay off? That would truly depend on how productive Boskovic’s replacement (Gomitoito) would have been. How high is Branko’s VORP? From a purely statistical standpoint, Boskovic’s one goal and seven assists could have come from elsewhere. But he was involved in some of this team’s biggest goals of the year. There are very few players in MLS that could have set up the goal against the Columbus Crew that turned Lewis Neal into LEWIS NEAL. And his one goal was a diving header for a game-winner late against Chivas USA.
But even as we salute his involvement in those huge moments and thank him for his loyalty, we can’t also forget that Boskovic’s results fell pretty far below his potential. His dead ball service was occasionally elite, but more often was extremely inconsistent, failing to clear the first defender far too often. Given time, he could pick out teammates with precision, but time is a rare commodity with the heavy pressure of MLS. His work rate off the ball improved throughout the year, but still wasn’t enough to make him a legitimate option either as one of the deep midfielders in the double pivot, or the type of two-way winger that Ben Olsen values. Barring a shift in tactics, Boskovic wouldn’t have been an automatic starter in our regular lineup with a healthy De Rosario in 2013.
Will we miss him? Sure. There will be times next season when we wish we had a player with Boskovic’s vision and passing accuracy. But the question is whether we would have missed him in 2012. And the answer I’m leaning towards is no. Even without a replacement, Neal and Raphael Augusto could have contributed minutes in Boskovic’s place as attacking central midfielders and probably finished with nearly equivalent production. When you consider Pajoy’s high pressure and ball-winning ability, the excellent wing play of Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius, the improvements made by the back line, defensive midfielders, and goalkeeper, we could actually conclude that Boskovic was probably the least vital member of our starting 11 during the undefeated streak heading into the playoffs. In my opinion, United’s streak would have happened even without him.
And hopefully it will happen again without him in 2013.