Hernán Losada
Hernán Losada, the 38-year-old coach from Argentina, puts an emphasis on player fitness. Credit: Xavi Dussaq/D.C. United

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D.C. United doesn’t have the most talented or expensive roster in Major League Soccer, and new head coach Hernán Losada knows it. But his ferocious, uptempo style is designed to level the playing field. It could end up paying dividends in a major way, like it did in the team’s opener on Saturday, April 17. But it’s not without risk, either.

Despite a number of key injuries, a shorthanded D.C. United began the Losada era with a 2-1 win over New York City FC. It was the first chance to view Losada’s system in action. The Argentine emphasizes a high-pressing, uptempo style that asks his players to give absolutely everything. On Saturday, that’s exactly what they did.

“I am proud because they ran until the very last second,” Losada said after the game at Audi Field. “They went into every duel like it was the last one. That’s the only way for D.C. United.”

At 38, Losada is the youngest head coach in MLS. Despite only retiring as a player two years ago, his system already has a track record of helping an unheralded team punch well above its weight. Losada took over as head coach of Belgian side Beerschot last season and, despite being a novice coach, helped the team earn promotion to Belgium’s top division. This season, he had the small club unexpectedly high in the first division standings while playing an eye-catching brand of soccer.

That’s when D.C. United snapped him up during Beerschot’s season. In his first game at least, Losada replicated his feats in Belgium by leading his team to success against opponents with more resources at their disposal.

“I’m so happy with the points against a very good opponent, an opponent that should always play in the playoffs, a team who invested a lot more than us,” Losada said. 

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Losada’s style of play requires complete buy-in from his players and an exceptionally high level of physical fitness. Though Week 1 of “Losadaball” was a success, there were warning signs all around the win against NYCFC.

Leading up to the game, Losada offered a blunt assessment of his team’s physical state, saying: “I didn’t expect to have the team so unfit.”

During the game, defender Tony Alfaro suffered from cramps and had to be taken off in the second half. Yamil Asad, meanwhile, in his coach’s view, was “dead” after 70 minutes.

“In the second half, maybe the fitness levels drop a little bit so we can’t press,” United midfielder Russell Canouse said after the game.

Being too tired to press can be a death knell in a high-risk, high-reward system like Losada’s. If one player is late to press or misses a tackle, United’s opponents could be presented with clear scoring chances. 

Earlier this season, Beerschot lost a game 5-1, then followed that up by winning 6-3. Two weeks later they tied 5-5. These kinds of results typify Losada’s system but without total buy-in and improved fitness levels, United could find themselves on the wrong side of lopsided scorelines far too often. 

Losada knows his team is walking a tightrope but he sees no other option.

“If we want to compete with teams that are going to be better than us, teams that have more budget and better players than us, we need to be the fittest team in the league,” he said prior to the game against NYCFC.

There was a moment against NYCFC that highlighted the promise that Losada’s coaching reign offers. United lost the ball high up the field but Junior Moreno, pressed up high, quickly won the ball back and laid it back for defender Brendan Hines-Ike, who was also high up the field.

Hines-Ike unleashed a long drive that flew into the back of the net, tying the game.

“Brendan is in that position because our defense is high, because we want to press,” Losada said. “Otherwise Brendan wouldn’t be there.”

There are plenty of risks with Losada’s style of play but here, in one moment, was the reward. There will be growing pains and United may take a beating or two along the way. But for anyone watching D.C. United this season, this is almost a guarantee: It won’t be boring.