We're just 31 days away from D.C. United's first competitive game of 2016, and the second piece in our countdown series is looking at Bobby Boswell, the man that wears #32. Before you ask: No, this doesn't dovetail neatly with the calendar like our Luke Mishu piece and yes, it's because of the snowstorm. Or the drinking I did in response to the snowstorm.
Anyway, the question that seems to come up with Boswell these days is whether the soon-to-be 33 year old should be transitioned to a spot on the bench. The thinking goes that Boswell didn't have a great finish to 2015, and United's other center backs - Steve Birnbaum and Kofi Opare - are younger, faster, and have plenty of promise. On a team that needs to get younger and faster, any player who is older and slower is potentially up to be replaced. In our comments, throughout #DCU twitter, and even within our staff here, there is a significant group that thinks Opare will push Boswell out of the starting lineup sometime this summer at the latest. 22% of voters in our season-ending poll said they didn't even want Boswell to return for the 2016 season.
I'm not convinced by the arguments, though. Boswell's finish to 2015 was in line with just about every United player's finish to 2015; take Bill Hamid out of it, and who was actually playing above their normal level by the time October came around? Chris Pontius is the only name that comes to mind. A team-wide swoon will eventually mean your defenders have to do more defending, which in turn boosts the chances that they will make mistakes.
In an ideal world, United could find someone with Boswell's organization ability and frankly amazing durability - he has missed 3 games in the last 4 seasons combined, and 2 of those were due to a suspension - who has the speed, lateral quickness, and youth of United's other center backs. And in an ideal world, United's two star players wouldn't be prone to injury, and Perry Kitchen would have agreed to stay in town. We don't live in an ideal world.
Age is a funny thing with soccer players. Sometimes a player will age slowly but surely, following a gentle downward path. Others - and United has seen this recently in the form of Dwayne De Rosario - find their body suddenly nowhere near able to provide what it used to, and are unable to adjust their game. We can't say for sure that Boswell is the first type of player or the second, though it is tempting to conclude that his durability points to the former. And really, Boswell doesn't look any worse now than he did at 28; I maintain that United's overall play had more to do with his autumn form than age or ability.
Here's the other side of the coin: United's younger center backs didn't exactly make a great case for themselves this past season. Birnbaum found himself sitting the bench for a stretch of time last year, while Opare seemed to have a tendency to make mistakes when stepping up to shut down a threat (a skill that Boswell is usually very good at). Neither player seems to have Boswell's organizational instincts, either; if anything, Birnbaum appears to be closer in that regard than Opare at this point.
There isn't really any other competition on the roster right now. Markus Halsti could probably do a reasonable job in central defense, and would probably lower the Black-and-Red's tendency towards long ball soccer, but we don't even know with total certainty that United is going to keep him around. Assuming he does stay, it seems entirely likely that he will be in central midfield. Jalen Robinson is the only other player on the roster with experience at center back in the last 3-4 years, but he lacks size and was not thought of as "ready" by the coaching staff just a few short months ago.
There's also the question of leadership. Boswell's style of play and personality both seem to reflect a lot about what United is good at. A team that could be without their star player for half the season needs a leader, as does a team that lost their best central midfielder. It might be a rough spring for United as is; benching a captain who has played a big part in what is by all accounts a healthy locker room culture could well make that worse.
The time will come where United has to improve upon Boswell. The time will also come where Boswell loses what little speed he has. Barring the acquisition of a player that would be quite expensive, the former is probably a year or two away. If the latter scenario comes up in 2016, it will be a bit like the out of nowhere drop-off De Ro suffered in 2013. As of today, though, it seems like the captain will likely rack up another 30+ starts.