D.C. United prepares for new era under Hernan Losada as 2021 season opens

Even from the first preseason game to the final exhibition contest, Russell Canouse could see improvement. At the start, the implementation of coach Hernan Losada’s new system looked choppy as players thought through each movement.

But as the matches went on, the D.C. United midfielder noticed more fluidity among his teammates, more instances that proved Losada’s message was breaking through. Losada, the 38-year-old Argentinian manager who’s taking over Washington’s MLS franchise after 10 years of Ben Olsen at the helm, wants to establish a pressing and attacking brand of soccer.

When the Black-and-Red kick off the 2021 campaign at Audi Field on Saturday night against New York City FC, that’s the kind of play Losada expects from his side. But he’s also realistic. Losada knows Saturday’s display won’t be the finished product, not right out of the gates.

“When you come to replace a coach after 10 years, you need some time, you know?” Losada said. “You can’t change everything in six, seven weeks. Rome wasn’t built in a couple of weeks, so it will take some time.”

Losada finds reason for optimism, though, in the same moments Canouse keyed in on. Despite drawing one and losing two matches against the MLS competition United faced in preseason, the process of getting players to understand  Losada’s system was more important.

Canouse classifies Losada’s style as a “high-energy, pressing, attacking style of football.” They want to push the ball up the field with pace once the opponent gives away possession.

That style worked well for Losada while he was manager of Beerschot in Belgium. The defense isn’t always rock solid, but the attacking focus reaps goals — in a 10-game span between September and November 2020, Beerschot and its opponents combined to score 60 goals.

The difficulties replicating such a high-tempo style in D.C. straightaway are twofold. First, Canouse said it’s a matter of fitness, with players still working back into game shape. And second, few teams — if any — can maintain a high press for a full 90 minutes.

“We’re not going to go 90 minutes, right?” Canouse said. “But you have to find balances where you get behind the ball, get compact, and then really find the shape to go out and press again. I think those two key things, [fitness and balance], will then allow us to then go establish a good, fluid, transition of that pressing style throughout the game.”

The D.C. United of last season struggled to produce an entertaining brand of soccer, scoring 25 goals while giving up  41 in 23 contests. United missed the playoffs and Olsen lost his job.

Losada expects his new style of play will have an immediate impact.

“I can imagine the supporters want to do better than last season, and wants to get entertainment,” Losada said. “… We can give that style of play that makes the fans pay for a ticket to come and watch us. That’s the goal, and that’s what we’re going to try to give on Saturday.”

The coach supplemented his roster with several additions this offseason, but there are also many absences heading into Saturday’s match.

Center back Steve Birnbaum underwent a second ankle surgery in March, sidelining the captain for three months. Forward Nigel Robertha, signed March 25, might not play a starring role Saturday, with Losada saying the team will take it “easy with him.” Goalkeeper Bill Hamid underwent sports hernia surgery in January and will miss the beginning of the campaign.

Without Hamid, experienced goalkeeper Chris Seitz should feature predominantly between the posts. And despite not having the familiar presence of Birnbaum along the back line, a combination of Frederic Brillant, Donovan Pines and newcomer Brendan Hines-Ike — who joined on loan in March from Belgian club KV Kortrijk — have building chemistry.

“He’s played over in Europe, which is obviously no easy feat,” Seitz said of Hines-Ike. “He’s come in here and done well. He’s integrated into the team greatly and guys respect him on the field and guys respect him in the locker room.”

Losada admits he’s eager for kickoff, even if it marks the start of a season of unknowns.

“I have long days at work, so when the night comes, I can always sleep well. So that won’t be a problem,” Losada said. “But of course, I will wake up on Saturday morning excited to come to Audi Field.”

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