DC United preview: A new identity on and off the pitch

D.C. United spent the offseason making dramatic changes in the front office, and fans heading back to Audi Field for the team’s 26th season will see dramatic changes on the sideline and in the style of play.

The flurry of activity in the offseason began with the arrival of Danita Johnson as United’s president of business operations. Johnson is the first Black president of a Major League Soccer team, and only the third woman in league history to serve in this role.

In January, Hernán Losada was hired as United’s head coach to replace Ben Olsen, who was fired last October after having been on the field or the sideline for an incredible 71% of the games in United’s history.

And this week, Dave Kasper was promoted to president of soccer operations, with Lucy Rushton, who worked in Atlanta United’s front office, taking on his previous role of general manager, making her MLS’s highest-ranking woman working in charge of player personnel.

“I hope when young girls see me in this role with D.C. United it gives them the confidence to go for it and follow their dreams,” said Rushton. “This opportunity is the right fit for me because of the people at the club. Understanding the ambitions of the owners, and to work alongside someone of Dave’s caliber, I can’t wait to get started.”

New coach, new style

Losada has barely had time to catch his breath. When he was hired by United, Losada was coaching Belgium side Beerschot, whom he guided Beerschot to promotion to Belgium’s first division and was a fan favorite for his attractive style of play.

He’s still loved by the team’s supporters even though he left Beerschot in midseason.

Losada, who is from Argentina and had a successful playing career in Belgium, yearned for the opportunity to come to the United States and try to make an impact in MLS.

“Here with United I have found a group who is willing to have a change,” said Losada.

“I’m very happy to be here. I really wake up every day with loads of energy — to have good sessions, to enjoy what we’re doing. We are lucky people, working, earning money doing what we like the most, especially during this time of the pandemic.”

And Losada is connecting with his players.

“He’s a guy that asks a lot of every single player, every staff member,” said midfielder Russell Canouse.

“He is really detail-oriented and is coming in with a style of play that personally I enjoy. I love playing in a pressing-style system. It just takes time to build that and get everyone on the same page and get us up to a level where we can do that for 90 minutes.”

That level that Canouse is talking about centers around player fitness. It doesn’t matter who United is playing; Losada wants his United team to be on the front foot and apply pressure. It sounds exciting, but it only works if players are in shape and tactically aware.

“The idea is to win the ball higher up the field with high pressure and one guy setting the tempo and then everyone else following,” said Canouse.

“It requires a lot of high energy, quick accelerations and covering a lot of distance on the field. And when you win the ball, attack the goal as fast as possible when the opponent is exposed.”

A matter of discipline

United’s new style of play might sound chaotic, but that’s exactly why discipline is required.

“We have to find the right balance between going forward straight away, but then also recognizing the times when we need to keep the ball,” said defender Frédéric Brillant.

“If we work hard to get possession and then turn the ball back over, it doesn’t work. But we are confident about the future because we have clear idea of what we want to do.”

Brillant’s words must be music to Losada’s ears. Coaches are judged on results, but looking at the long term, Losada wants his players to buy into what he’s selling, and for his style of play to become part of the fabric of the club.

“The expectations are to settle on a way of play that D.C. United haven’t been playing for the last 15 to 20 years,” said Losada.

“We need to have an identity. Our main goal is that when you guys are watching D.C. United, you have a good feeling with the way we are playing and you know exactly what we want. And you’re going to see a D.C. United going for the win every single weekend.”

Losada understands the risks of his approach and that the results might not be there at the beginning. The most important thing is that his players know exactly what to do in every situation of a game.

“The first step in winning games is creating an identity that every single player can align with, no matter if you’re starting or coming in off the bench,” said Canouse.

“Every single person needs to know their role when they get into the game and that is so important in terms of having long-term success.”

Fans in the stands

United will be looking to have success with fans in the stands. Audi Field will be allowed 25% of its capacity — between 4,000 and 5,000 spectators.

“Games at Audi Field in 2018 and 2019, with fans at our back, just gave us that much more energy to go out and get a result,” said Canouse.

“It was difficult not having fans last year. You have to try to motivate yourself within the team, but the atmosphere felt like a preseason friendly. Even a small percentage of fans will make a difference.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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