D.C. United's Branko Boskovic making a splash on both sides of the ocean

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 4:10 AM

Branko Boskovic plays for a distinguished MLS club enduring the worst patch in its history and a blossoming country bidding to make history.

The divergent paths, coupled with cultural adjustments, taxing travel and high expectations, have made for an unsettling few months for Boskovic, a 30-year-old midfielder for D.C. United and Montenegro's national team.

While United (5-17-3) has been a massive disappointment, Montenegro has begun to flourish in international competition just four years after its independence from Serbia.

In qualification for the 2012 European championship, soccer's second-most important tournament behind the World Cup, the Brave Falcons won their first two matches and are level on points with England atop Group G. Boskovic started in 1-0 victories over Wales and Bulgaria, and has been called up for games against Switzerland on Oct. 8 at home and England four days later at Wembley Stadium.

"Nobody expected this; we are a small country" of 672,000, Boskovic said. "But the mentality in my country is, when you win two games, everyone expects you to beat England."

The winner of the five-team group will secure passage to the 2012 event in Poland and Ukraine, while the second-place finisher will earn an additional berth or compete in a playoff.

Previously, Montenegro's only major competition was qualification for the 2010 World Cup. It finished fifth among six teams with a 1-3-6 record, well behind front-running Italy and Ireland.

Before independence, Boskovic represented the nation of Serbia and Montenegro 12 times.

Because of international duty, he missed United's U.S. Open Cup semifinal against Columbus on Sept. 1 and the league match with the Crew three days later. In preparation for the next two qualifiers, he will not be available for the Oct. 9 game against the San Jose Earthquakes.

Boskovic hasn't started the past two D.C. matches - he had just returned from Europe before United's 1-0 win at Toronto on Sept. 11 and, last weekend at Los Angeles, interim coach Ben Olsen rewarded the previous week's starters for playing well. Boskovic seems likely to rejoin the lineup Saturday against the Houston Dynamo in a meeting between MLS's two worst clubs.

Since signing with United in July, however, Boskovic has not made a significant impression. He hasn't been bad, but given his team-high salary of $516,000, expectations were far greater for him than other midseason acquisitions. Last weekend, with a chance to put United ahead against the league-best Galaxy in the 85th minute, he failed to convert a breakaway.

"We make so many mistakes like children," he said, including himself in the blame. "We need maybe more concentration."

In assessing Boskovic's contributions, Olsen cited fitness issues when he first arrived and disruptions caused by international service. "With each game," Olsen said, "we're certainly going to start to see him become the player we want him to be."

Boskovic has played primarily in central midfield for United, the same position that he manned for Rapid Vienna last season. For the national team, Boskovic usually plays on the left flank and pinches inside when Montenegro's most accomplished player, Italian-based forward Marko Vucinic, drifts wide.

Looking ahead to next year, Boskovic's role might end up being defined by offseason acquisitions. While a proven striker and experienced central defender are top priorities, United might try to sign a central midfielder as well. If that were to occur, Boskovic would partner centrally with the new player or move to the flank.

Providing stronger support is vital, Olsen acknowledged. "Are we missing a piece or two? Yeah, we all know that. We're all looking for the guy who can score 15 goals a year. It will help Branko because he is very good passer. He can do good things for us."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company