Branko Boskovic carries D.C. United's hopes for turnaround

United's Branko Boskovic, right, signed a designated player contract that is one of the largest in club history. He will start Saturday night.
United's Branko Boskovic, right, signed a designated player contract that is one of the largest in club history. He will start Saturday night. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Had he arrived in the spring, Branko Boskovic would have enjoyed ample time to build up his fitness, learn about his new D.C. United teammates and progressively adapt to the club's philosophy.

But time is short. The MLS season has passed the midway juncture, and United is desperate for victories in order to revive its playoff wish.

Since his entrance this month, Boskovic has taken a crash course in American soccer, and after brief appearances in a pair of regular season matches and influential starting roles in two nonleague games last week, the attacking midfielder is poised to orchestrate United's attack Saturday night against reigning champion Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.

"I am a simple guy," he said. "All of the players here have good character and are friendly. You need time to know the players, know how they play and know what they like. It's starting to come together."

It will need to come together quickly. United (3-11-3) has the fewest points (12) in the 16-member league, and while its prospects of reaching the eight-team postseason are grim, the implementation of summer signings Boskovic and Argentine forward Pablo Hernandez promises to bolster an attack that has produced just 12 goals and been shut out 11 times.

"We have been able to incorporate him more into the team, and he has fit in nicely," Coach Curt Onalfo said of Boskovic. "He has instincts to go forward, but he is tactically intelligent and knows where to be defensively."

Boskovic's promotion into the lineup has altered United's approach. Instead of playing with two deep-lying central midfielders in tandem -- Clyde Simms and Stephen King formed a steady partnership of late -- Onalfo plans to use Simms in defensive support of Boskovic and create a diamond-shaped midfield with a variety of options on the wings.

Much is expected of Boskovic, 30, whose designated player contract is one of the largest in club history. Terms were not released, and the players' union salary list probably won't be updated for several weeks.

His career has taken him from famed Serbian club Red Star Belgrade to French sides Paris Saint-Germain and Troyes, then to Rapid Vienna for 4 1/2 years. He was born in Yugoslavia and played for Serbia and Montenegro in international competition 12 times, and when Montenegro became an independent country in 2006, he chose to represent his father's ethnic heritage.

In Montenegro's first official event, the qualifying stages for the 2010 World Cup, Boskovic started seven of 10 matches and captained the squad multiple times. Montenegro (1-3-6) finished fifth out of six teams in a group that included Italy and Ireland.

Largely inactive since the Austrian season ended in May, Boskovic has had to work on fitness. Upon becoming eligible two-plus weeks ago, he played 18 and 17 minutes, respectively, against the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy before scoring in the first minute of his first start, against third-tier Harrisburg in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. He was in the starting lineup last Saturday against English club Portsmouth, registering an assist in 61 minutes of a 4-0 victory.

Conditioning has been a challenge in the oppressive heat and humidity of a Washington summer.

"It's very, very hot, and even if you are physically good, it's hard. It's a difficult climate, but I have gotten used to it," he said. "These last two games helped me a lot. I feel like I can play at a good level now."

Notes: Forward Chris Pontius (foot), defender Devon McTavish (calf), defender Dejan Jakovic (hamstring), forward Adam Cristman (abdominal) and defender Marc Burch (foot) were all expected to be available after injury layoffs. Defender Juan Manuel Peña (quadriceps) remains sidelined.

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