Hernán Losada
Hernán Losada Credit: Xavi Dussaq/D.C. United

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When news trickled out that D.C. United had fired head coach Hernán Losada earlier this week, the reaction was nothing short of shock. The Argentine coach’s tenure ended just hours after a 3-0 win in U.S. Open Cup play over lower-level side Flower City Union. The change comes at an unusual time for United, who have, over the years, caught flack from portions of the fan base for being too patient during poor seasons. Losada’s time with the organization concluded just six games into the regular season and barely a year after he was first hired from Belgian club Beerschot AC.

Adding to the surprise nature of the move, it came days after United’s biggest offseason acquisition, Greek forward Taxiarchis Fountas, made his debut for the team in last Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Austin FC. The last two home defeats have been particularly hard to take: D.C. conceded the game’s only goal deep in stoppage time in a 1-0 loss to Atlanta United on April 2, and then threw away an 80th minute 2-0 lead to lose to Austin. The latter loss saw United fall to the bottom of MLS’ Eastern Conference.

Longtime assistant coach Chad Ashton has been named interim head coach for the remainder of 2022, while former United center back Frédéric Brillant has been added to the coaching staff as an assistant after retiring this winter to become an assistant coach with the club’s satellite, Loudoun United FC.

The results this season were a factor in Losada’s dismissal. Losada could rightly point to some positives this year—a fitter squad and the dominant performance in the first 75 minutes against Austin—but United has not been in playoff form for months. Losada’s first 18 games in charge saw D.C. pick up 27 points, a 1.5 points-per-game pace that would have been good enough to comfortably qualify for the postseason last year, but United eventually missed out due to a late-season swoon that saw the team win just six of its final 16 matches. Combined with United’s first six games of 2022, the club’s points-per-game pace is down to 1.18 over its last 22 matches.

However, information emerging from the club over the past day have pointed toward a clash involving Losada’s blunt talk to media about organizational shortcomings, and the difficulties everyone at United had with adapting to Losada’s exacting and, in some cases, micromanaging methodology. In press conferences, Losada would routinely bring up the high-priced players on other teams in contrast with United’s roster, speaking plainly about the team’s owners and a perceived lack of willingness to invest in players. That frankness is common in many leagues around the world, but it is rare for MLS, a league where dirty laundry is generally aired behind closed doors.

Wingback Julian Gressel, on the podcast Zee Soccer Pod that he hosts with Chicago midfielder Fabian Herbers, said that he “reaped the benefits” of Losada’s intense fitness and diet demands, but also noted that some other players within the squad didn’t share his view on it. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid also shared his respect for Losada in a farewell message on Twitter.

Anecdotally, no coach in MLS spoke more about fitness than Losada did during his tenure with United. Players weighed in twice a week and faced fines if they didn’t meet a target weight set by the club. Losada’s approach at United was that the club would have to make up for being potentially less talented by being fitter than any other team in the league, with the aim of making effort and stamina the equalizer.

At times, this mentality worked. Few teams in MLS were hotter through June and July 2021, a spell that saw United post a 7-1 demolition of Toronto, and after a brief stumble in early August, they recovered to go 4-1-1 just before entering the final stretch. However, United also lost 215 man-games to injury last year, a staggering number that pointed toward players breaking down from being pushed too hard amid summer heat and long flights that Losada never had to previously navigate.

On top of that, U.S. national team winger Paul Arriola requested a trade this offseason, eventually ending in a deal that sent him to FC Dallas in exchange for $2 million in MLS’ internal “General Allocation Money” asset system, a record sum for a move within the league. While Arriola and United have both never made explicitly stated his reasons for wanting out, the main issue, The Athletic reported, was with Losada’s methods.

Nonetheless, the 39-year-old Argentine charmed the fan base. Banners in his honor routinely hung in the stands at Audi Field, and a team video featuring Losada encouraging the group with the slogan “Let’s fly!” took off, becoming enough of a catchphrase that the team is using #LetsFly as one of its official Twitter hashtags in 2022. A fan base that had long been frustrated with the cautious tactics former coach Ben Olsen often deployed fell for Losada, who promised and delivered high-risk attacking play.

While diehards certainly did not enjoy the results over the last month or so, few criticisms of Losada persisted, and the fan base’s ire has so far been directed at president of soccer operations Dave Kasper as well as part-owner Jason Levien. Losada’s record, purely cast in wins and losses, is not appreciably different from the last three seasons under Olsen, but the thrilling, edge-of-your-seat nature of Losada’s tactical approach gave him leeway with a fan base that demands entertaining soccer.

Aside from getting very little time with Fountas, Losada had little time to adjust to the two biggest moves United made after preseason had begun. Arriola left in late January, while the club transferred homegrown player Kevin Paredes to German club VfL Wolfsburg in February, bringing in a club-record $7.35 million fee in the exchange. Both moves were good business, but Arriola and Paredes were among the least replaceable players on United’s 2021 roster.

Ecuador national team striker Michael Estrada and Australian wingback Brad Smith arrived shortly after Arriola and Paredes departed, and United paid a fee to move Fountas’ planned summer transfer from Austrian club Rapid Vienna up by three months. But the skillsets lost in the shuffle have not been adequately replaced.

With fans upset about the choice and the season potentially at an early crossroads, Ashton, a widely respected figure within the organization who lead a threadbare squad to a three wins, three losses, and one draw as interim boss in 2020 after Olsen’s tenure ended, will face immediate pressure to produce good results, starting with Saturday’s home game against the New England Revolution.

“This team truly believes that they’re a playoff team,” Ashton said in his first remarks to the media since being named the interim head coach. While he is not seen as someone likely to make major changes to the tactical approach, Ashton did allude to possibly making adjustments given that United has 28 games left to play. When replacing Olsen in 2020, Ashton changed little tactically beyond encouraging a more attacking mindset, and a team that couldn’t score all year suddenly averaged two goals per game and found itself in some thrilling matches.

One early adjustment the Colorado native said he’ll be making is to simply reframe how the squad sees the task of playing professional soccer. “I want the guys to enjoy what they’re doing. I want them to come to work and have fun, and look at it as an opportunity, not as a job,” Ashton said. “I want to get them in the mindset of, ‘Hey, I get to go out there and do this…’ I want to get them all in the headspace of, ‘I can’t wait to get to work today.’”

Winning the group over within the locker room may not be too difficult. Ashton is known as a strong man-manager, and while United has been losing of late, the team has been in contention to pick up points every week. United is not likely far from turning the corner, but Losada’s popularity in the stands means that it may take much longer to convince supporters that this was the right move.