Forgive the cliché, but the 2021 Major League Soccer season is truly start of a new era for D.C. United. A dire 2020 ended with Ben Olsen’s decade-plus tenure as head coach — easily the longest in club history — come to an end. A drawn-out coaching search saw the club hire Hernán Losada and promise more excitement. The new boss has made a good first impression, but there are signs that 2021 might be more of a first step towards being both entertaining and effective as opposed to a stunning one-year turnaround for the Black-and-Red.
2020 regular season record: 5W-6D-12L, 21 points (-16 GD, 25-41). 13th place in the East.
MLS is Back Tournament: 0W-2D-1L, 2 points (-1 GD, 3-4). 4th place in Group C.
Head coach: Hernán Losada. United is taking a chance on the 38-year-old Argentine, who has only coached 40 professional league matches. That said, after two straight seasons characterized by very conservative soccer, fans are excited about the new boss’s reputation for very attack-minded tactics.
Key additions: Brendan Hines-Ike, Nigel Robertha, Adrien Perez, Kimarni Smith, Michael DeShields, Jovanny Bolivar, Jacob Greene, Jon Kempin
Key losses: Ulises Segura, Oniel Fisher, Gelmin Rivas, Mohammed Abu, Earl Edwards Jr., Axel Sjöberg
Projected starting XI:
With a new coach, several big names entering the season injured, and little preseason video, we’re having to do some guesswork. Steven Birnbaum will be a starter once he recovers from offseason ankle surgery, but it’s not clear who on the back three makes way. Donovan Pines, Frederic Brillant, and Brendan Hines-Ike will most likely battle for two spots.
The club’s biggest offseason addition, Nigel Robertha, will be major competition for Ola Kamara, or could partner him if Losada wants to flip that attacking triangle at the expense of a second attacking midfielder alongside Edison Flores. Then again, there are signs that young Estonian striker Erik Sorga may start the opener ahead of Kamara, and United used the 4th overall SuperDraft pick on a forward (Kimarni Smith), so the starting no. 9 job appears to be up for grabs.
Homegrowns Kevin Paredes and Moses Nyeman both could be legit contenders to start, while Felipe Martins (torn ACL) has already been participating in training and could be back by May. There’s also serious competition to join Flores and whichever striker emerges as the starter in the front three even before Paul Arriola returns from an injury suffered during an offseason loan.
Best offseason move: Hands down, it’s Losada, a young Argentine coach with a reputation for playing thrilling soccer. After years of a mostly pragmatic style designed to grind out results with below-average attacking talent, United fans were on the verge of full revolt when former Red Bulls boss Chris Armas briefly became the reported front-runner for the job. Losada’s history as a coach is short, but the wild games (we’re talking 5-5 draws, 6-3 wins, etc.) and clear commitment to attack-minded soccer have received a warm reception in the DMV.
Reasons to be worried about United: United has largely kept their 2020 squad together, which is a huge bet on that group being good enough to win in MLS. It’s an unspoken way of saying that last year’s problems were some mix of injuries and tactics, but the proof one way or another isn’t there yet. On paper, there’s a lot of talent, but right now the only data point with this group is a five-win 2020.
Additionally, Losada’s coaching career has only just started, and he has repeatedly emphasized that getting this group to implement his tactical approach at a high level is going to take time. He’s new to MLS as well, meaning that the early weeks of this season could be about taking lumps and learning some lessons. There’s at least a chance that the 2021 season is really about getting set up to impress in 2022.
Why D.C. United are worth watching: Around 20% of Losada’s games as a coach have seen the two teams involved combine for 5+ goals. Last year with Beerschot, there was a ten-game stretch where they and their opponents produced a total of 60 goals. You like goals, right?
That’s a good enough sales pitch by itself, but there are other reasons to believe United is going to be fun this year. They may not have a current MLS superstar, but the attack is deep enough that an established, reliable MLS starter like Yamil Asad might not be first-choice. Last year’s struggles also made room for teenagers Nyeman, Paredes, and Griffin Yow to prove that they can be impact players in this league already, and Losada has repeatedly said he’s willing to give United’s Homegrown contingent minutes if they bring it in training.