With hopes of a postseason appearance dashed, Loudoun United continues to be jovial and entertaining themselves and each other, despite not a lot left to play for. In chatting with several members of the team, the shared focus appears to be on the work put in for 2022 with a slight eye towards 2023.
“The big one for us is ‘Okay, well there’s maybe not a lot to play for in terms of playoffs and championships and all that type of stuff, (but) can you find consistency, that’s the key for any young player,” Coach Ryan Martin said after a late September practice. “I preach it with them all the time, ‘Can you put back-to-back performances in?’ and it’s even harder when there’s less maybe to play for it at stake, (but) that’s how they can get their chances with D.C. United.”
Martin has been regularly fielding one of the youngest teams in club football in 2022, which is not only part of the job but something he enjoys. “In this position, you’re always looking for next year and who are the prospects who can really make a jump forward. Does Gavin (Turner) go from 20 minutes a game to starting and playing 70, or does he go to starting, playing 90 and being a high level contributor? That’s the question, Matai (Akinmboni), same thing. Jacob Greene has been great, does he put another really good performance and if he does, then that’s an easy look for 2023. So you’re always asking that and really trying to help them in their journey, even if it’s not here. Some of these guys will move on, that are going to start and last three or four games, (so) can I help prepare them for their next path and their journey? A lot of that comes down to competing consistentlyy and their focus, energy and concentration for the match.”
One of the older players is Skage Simonsen, drafted by D.C. United and following a slow start has grown into a contributor with Loudoun, leading the team with seven assists. “I lost two months of the season to start (to injury), and it was kind of hard, but I started to get into it now. Personally, I’m just happy I get to play, we have a good team. We have the players and the team to be able to have way better stats than we really have, and I think that goes for me and a lot of other guys on the team. Looking at my stats I’m not jumping in my bed about it you know, but for me, the most important thing I think is just to just to get better every game and get kind of adjusted to this lifestyle.”
Simonsen is one of several professionals who will be playing in Saturday’s season ending game with the Charleston Battery in South Carolina’s lowcountry (5pm EST, ESPN+), with goal scoring leader Tyler Freeman (8) and clean sheet leader Luis Zamudio (7), with Simonsen and Zamudio holding single-season bests in the short history for Loudoun. Joining them will be several loaned-down players from D.C., including Ted Ku-DiPietro, Kimarni Smith, Greene, Akinmboni and Jeremy Garay. Turner and Abdellatif Aboukoura complement the team from an Academy perspective.
A challenge when it comes to Loudoun (or any MLS2 team in general) has been the desire to be tactically consistent with what the first team is doing, which Loudoun has had to catch up to for two years in the change to Hernan Losada and did again when Wayne Rooney took over in July. And the change is more than just tactics; finding players that are a better fit for the first team’s system at that moment takes time, and putting some players into different formations that are not conducive to their abilities can result in a net negative; witness Hayden Sargis’ loan to Phoenix Rising, where the USL side employs a three-man backline that he is a regular starter in.
Martin talked about working under three managers in one year, saying, “I think the big shift from Hernan to Chad was fairly easy and pretty similar. The shift to Wayne was difficult because both teams are really built for 352 and wing-backs, so neither team having really true outside backs (means) we’ve had to kind of fill that void a little bit. But to be honest, this year has been a growing year for me in terms of how to adapt on the fly? How do you put a new system in within the course of a week? How do you simplify it enough to not overwhelm young players but make it complex enough to get what you want into it? I feel when I look back, I did some things very well. I think I did some things where you know, if I had to do it again, I would do it differently. So it’s been a really good growing year for myself.”
Through the evolution of the year, seeing the development of the kids still makes the older guys happy.
“We may or may not be winning all the games we could or should be, but that’s growing pains,” Jalen Robinson said. “That’s what happens when you play with younger players, the growth. I can see why, college coaches love being coaches, or even teachers. You just see growth in these players and it’s fulfilling. A big one that comes to mind for me was Fletch (Kristian Fletcher). When Fletch came he was one player, and just how he’s grown. Bouchy (Aboukoura) is another, and I can go on, but it’s just all these young players. They just they come and either they’re timid or just shells of themselves when they first come in, but the growth that they make is so noticeable.”
Martin adds on, “Even Gavin who early on was training in and out and then he was in the academy and then we (gave him) some minutes and he’s kind of worked his way into where, he’s able to do a job in the game. Matai is a similar one where he was getting some minutes against Oakland (in May) and now he gets a shut out here (against Hartford). Tyler Freeman comes in and showed flashes but now I think we see consistency from him. I was just telling Stuart (Mairs, D.C. Technical Director/Loudoun General Manager), I think (Jacob) has taken a massive leap from last year, and has been probably one of our more consistent performers. Carson Vom Steeg has been another one that came in, was injured for the last couple of years and he’s been a pretty steady Eddie for us in the back. Nicky (Downs) and Jalen (Robinson), we knew what we were gonna get. Luis is another one that really came in, and with games and opportunity, was really able to showcase himself. So from start to finish, I look at this group, I think we’ve seen a lot of individual growth, which I’m very happy about and it’s starting to pay off.”
Even with Losada’s willingess to examine young players, the feeling is Rooney will continue and maybe even expedite the promotion dynamic. “Wayne’s always trying to figure out who can we bring in, who can we really see? And I think you’ll start to see (for example), Tyler Freeman is gonna get a look in the next couple weeks and the reality is Tyler still only 19. My hope is at least Jacob Greene getting a run or some of these other guys so, but yeah, Wayne’s very pro young guys, and I think you’ll see more guys getting chances and it’s been positive.”