With his first preseason in MLS winding down, there’s no question what new D.C. United head coach Hernán Losada’s top focus is at the moment: Fitness. The topic came up numerous times throughout this week’s remote press conference, the first since the club returned to the District from a training camp in North Carolina.
“I didn’t expect to have the team so unfit,” said Losada in discussing what he had learned about the club during his first weeks in charge. That blunt assessment may come off as harsh, but Losada immediately added that “...the mindset of the players is great. They come to the club with loads of positivity, willing to work hard, willing to get better.”
Losada’s daunting physical requirements for the team matter for two reasons. There is the obvious stylistic change that has been discussed throughout the preseason, with Losada’s emphasis on aggressively pressing opponents and relying on a high-speed style that results in a lot of transition play. For players, that translates as having to sprint more often, and for longer distances than they did in last year’s more conservative tactical approach.
Frederic Brillant acknowledged the the tactical side being a major factor. “We work very hard physically, and the reason why it is because we want to press the opponent... The last two games, the pressing was very intense, very high. We went a lot to press the opponent, on the (touchline) especially. And, yeah, we are pretty compact, the way we press, and when we have the ball we want to get forward as quick as possible.”
“It was a long time off the field, off training, [it] was a hard time for everybody,” added midfielder Yamil Asad, alluding to the fact that United’s official offseason lasted about four whole months.
However, Losada’s thought process isn’t just about turning a tactical blueprint into reality. There is also an economic reality at play, with United showing few signs of being able to spend their way back into prominence in MLS. If the Black-and-Red want to climb back up the table and into contention, the solution in 2021 at least is most likely going to rely on out-working opponents, not unlike some recent Supporters Shield winners (including the current holders, the Philadelphia Union).
“If you 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, and we still need time to be that,” reasoned Losada.
The new boss currently thinks United can implement his gameplan at a high standard “for 60, 65, 70 minutes,” adding that this process is probably going to continue once the MLS regular season is underway. “It will take some time to get that intensity and energy we are using during the games and during the sessions, to be able to play that way for 90-95 minutes.”
Despite the emphasis that the team is not where it needs to be in terms of fitness, Losada indicated that he’s pleased with how preseason is going, and what he’s found since arriving in the U.S. back in late February. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but I have to say that I didn’t expect this progression after five weeks of preseason,” said Losada, later adding that his early impressions of the club as a whole are that “they’re a very positive, young group inside and outside the field, medical team, the medical staff or the guys from administration, physical coaches, a group who is willing to have a change.”
While the scorelines in the last two preseason games have not gone United’s way — they fell 2-0 to the Union, and 2-1 to NYCFC last week — Losada asserted that the team is grasping his approach. “I had a good feeling with (the last two preseason games), what I’m seeing on the field,” said Losada. “They are also looking forward to that first game, a home opener against against New York City, and we are expecting to play for the points as quick as possible. Maybe not me, I would like to have a couple of weeks extra to get my group even more fit, but the guys are really looking forward for that first game.”
Asad said that he felt the team is improving at a good rate. “I think we are getting better. We’re working on the coach’s idea, and I think we feel something we are building from the group.” Brillant agreed, noting that re-watching the second match changed his impression of how things were going for the group.
“The last two games, you can see now we have been an identity, and we know exactly where we are going,” said Brillant. “To be honest, I had a bad feeling after the last game, but I watched the game two times, and everything we work on during the preseason, we saw it... We are all on the same page, we are all [having] the same idea, so I’m confident.”
Even on the subject of fitness, Losada said that while the amount of ground to cover came as a surprise, he was happy with how far the group had come up to this point in the preseason. “I don’t believe that from the physical point of view, we will be ready for the 17th of April, but we improved a lot, comparing with where we’re coming from. It has been a long break.”
That said, numerous players have been unable to participate in full training sessions. Paul Arriola, Steven Birnbaum, Bill Hamid, and Felipe Martins all have injuries that are well-known by now, while new signings Jovanny Bolivar and Nigel Robertha needed time to receive their U.S. visas and to clear Covid-19 quarantines.
On the injury front, Losada said that there haven’t been many new issues within the group. Kevin Paredes, who hasn’t appeared yet in the preseason, has been restricted due to an injury that carried over from last year, but there is hope that he will be back at 100% within the next couple of weeks.
Losada noted that defender Chris Odoi-Atsem was able to participate during the first preseason session, but has been out ever since. Homegrown defender Jacob Greene picked up a knock in a challenge early in preseason, and has since had an unrelated “overload” on his quadriceps. In Spanish, Losada added that attacker Yordy Reyna is likely out for three or four weeks after picking up an injury in the 5-1 win over Loudoun United.
While Losada has asked for time to get the team physically ready to put his tactical blueprint into action, he is holding the squad to a very high standard. “I don’t believe that the results are going to be there (quickly)...we are working for that, but our main goal is that when you guys are watching D.C. United [is] that at the least, you have a good feeling with the way we are playing, and you know exactly what we want. You’re going to see a D.C. United going for the win every single weekend. And that’s the biggest part, to have an identity, a way of play where the players know exactly what to do in every situation of the game.”