Three observations from D.C. United’s 2-1 overtime win against the Richmond Kickers in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup:
United proved once again that it has some of the long-sought mental and physical toughness that it has lacked in recent seasons. After Kickers goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale stood on his head and made six saves in the second half alone, D.C. could’ve easily settled for penalty kicks or simply wilted on the road and allow the third-tier team to pull off an upset. After all, seven other MLS teams were ousted from the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday.
Instead, United never stopped going forward, never stopped trying to get the game winner. They were duly rewarded with one of 13 corner kicks on the night finally converted. Richmond was running on empty, too, and there was little convergence by any Kickers defenders on Marcelo Saragosa as the Brazilian fired home Branko Boskovic’s corner kick in the 107th minute.
“It’s a tough year because my dad just pass away and so [in the] last two months I was in Brazil,” said Saragosa, who had the best moment of a difficult season so far. “Well, I’m happy to score and get a chance to step onto the next level.”
The victory means United will finish 5-2 in all matches in May, including four wins in a row. That doesn’t happen by accident, and D.C. should get even healthier in the coming weeks.
“Gut checks sometimes are not the end of the world,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “We got through it tonight. I’ve been playing and coaching Open Cup games for a long time now and this is it, every time. It’s never great, the other team is always fighting for their lives and ramped up more than the ‘better’ team, and we survived.”
There were definitely United players who didn’t want to play. But there were also United players who needed minutes. D.C. got the best from both. Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos, a first-choice pairing at forward, combined for United’s first-half goal. Andy Najar and Josh Wolff played the entire 120 minutes. So did Ethan White – in his first minutes of the entire season following knee surgery – and Emiliano Dudar, who was coming off a hamstring strain.
“I made some mistakes but it was good to get back on the field,” said White, who got into a number of footraces with Richmond forward and former prep phenom Chris Agorsor, a friend of his from the players' academy days, White with D.C. United, Agorsor with the Baltimore Bays. “I feel like I’m on a good road. I’m gradually getting more fit. I can run all day in practice, but there’s nothing like match fitness, and it’s good to get 120 minutes under my belt to reassure that my knee can do it. It felt good.”
As out of place as Wolff looked playing attacking midfield in D.C.’s season opener, he’s really begun to redefine his playing style. Instead of trying to outrun defenders, which he can’t at the same level as he once did, Wolff is doing much more hard work underneath, fighting for balls and trying to release the forwards and wide midfielders with attacking passes. It’s a work in progress, but he was tireless against the Kickers.
We can’t end without talking more about Boskovic, who was instrumental in yet another victory, all in the midst of a contract situation that remains unresolved.
Now, even Boskovic didn’t go out on a limb to take credit for the gamewinning corner kick.
“It was nothing special,” he said. “I just put the ball in the box and we scored.”
But Boskovic played a key role, along with halftime sub Nick DeLeon, in continuing to drive D.C. United forward and orchestrate the attack as the game progressed, just as he did in D.C.’s last three regular season games – all victories.
“It’s difficult because you must prove what is on the paper, that you are better,” Boskovic said. “You must attack all the time; you must try something. I think we and this team are completely different. Especially, we must continue to win – it doesn’t matter against who we play.”
It’s funny, Boskovic’s personal mission with D.C. United seems very similar: to prove what he’s worth, to get assists so there’s evidence on the scoresheet of his impact and to get results out of every match he plays. But unlike the Kickers game, which ended in victory, his efforts haven’t moved the needle with D.C. United.
I asked United general manager Dave Kasper after the game if there were any developments regarding Boskovic’s situation, and he said, “There’s still time. We’re still talking to his agent.”
If that’s the case, the conversations are extremely brief. There’s been little contact between the parties, and there is no reason to believe that United is committed to Boskovic beyond July 15.
It’s worth keeping in mind that it’s a no-brainer that Boskovic would accept some sort of reasonable pay cut to stay in Washington. But D.C. United set his value when they brought him over, and if he’s been overpaid for his time in MLS, they have no one to blame but themselves.
That said, Boskovic doesn’t have a lot of leverage. He’s been in D.C. for two years; his family is happy. There are potential long-term benefits for any foreign player who may want to call the U.S. home later in life to stay employed here as long as possible. But his contract is up, and his track record over the term of his contract hasn’t been good, regardless of how much D.C. United is at fault. United has paid him, and it has every right to part ways with him.
But this is an MLS franchise treating its second-highest paid player, a designated player, as an afterthought. Other MLS teams, other MLS players – as well as the ones inside the United locker room – other foreign players and potential signings will take notice. D.C. United’s reputation isn’t immune from how this has unfolded.
Regardless of how late he’s come on, Boskovic’s contributions have been crucial to turning D.C. United into one of the best teams in MLS right now. He’s respected in the locker room and on the field, and he is appreciated by the fans, who believe that he’s worth keeping. If the front office thinks otherwise, it better have a satisfying alternative.