At the end of last season, Loudoun United General Manager Stewart Mairs (who is Technical Director of both Loudoun and D.C.) and Coach Ryan Martin discussed takeaways from the year, which could be a potentially daunting experience for a club that finished with the worst record in the USL Championship for the second straight season, but they were able to hone in on some traits of the team and where to go next and shared their thoughts recently.
“We know we’re always gonna have that youngish squad; we had some big victories last year in terms of pushing players through and that will always be a key goal of what essentially Loudoun United is,” Mairs said in a conversation with B&RU last week. “I think for a lot of the season last year, especially in the early starts of the year we were pretty good. The first 10-15 games we were dominating teams, but we weren’t quite getting the results at both ends. They were a really young team, I think an average age of maybe 20, and we just lacked a little bit of experience, [and] when we got to the 60th minute the wheels would maybe fall off a little bit. So I think we had a concerted effort this year to actively try and recruit some players that would help us control the game a little bit better, help us to with some of these younger guys, and have a couple of older heads to talk to whilst also bringing in the quality to try and win some games.”
Martin continued; “You look at Loudoun, and it’s frustrating for me sometimes because [of] the results, but you get to send five players up to the first team in one year, (so) I don’t know many clubs in the US or worldwide that have had that,” alluding to Drew Skundrich and Tony Alfaro specifically. “That part was great, but Stewart and I discussed that we want more of a balanced approach to development and helping the young guys through, so we feel like we’ve got a much better team in terms of front to back, guys with different experiences, maybe guys that didn’t work somewhere in the MLS or somewhere else, and have a little bit of a chip and a little bit of an edge that they wanna come prove themselves here, because Hernán (Losada) is giving opportunities, and that was seen last year between (Gaoussou) Samaké, Tony and Drew, then you look at Jeremy (Garay) and Ted Ku-DiPietro that went [on] a true pathway, so we got a lot of kids reaching out trying to chase that one. And getting Fred Brillant as an assistant coach is a major upgrade to my staff and to what we’re trying to do in terms of teaching, development, and the integration with Hernán and the first team.”
Despite the roster not being completed officially, Mairs shares the optimism: “I think we’re as balanced as we’ve ever been and as we progress each year, we’ve probably got as good a team as we’ve had for a long time that can compete, so hopefully we’ll continue to get the players coming down from D.C. United which helps us massively, and if we can blood those players in I think we’ll be in a much better spot to win a few more games this year.”
“Another thing Stewart and I talked about last year was when we put the roster together last year, we pretty much had most of the roster together before Hernán came in,” Martin adds, “so in terms of player profiles and what makes the first team, I think you’ll see a lot more similarities with high pressing athletic younger players that have tremendous potential because we’ve had a full season now with Hernán and what he wants, Fred’s obviously helped out Sean (Howe, Scouting Director), Lucy (Rushton, General Manager), et cetera, so you know going into this year that’s been a big a big thing for Stewart and myself; ‘Can we play a 352, can we play a 343, can we play a 4231?’ and show different looks similar to what Hernán wants to see in his players.”
With Loudoun being one of a handful of teams remaining in the USL Championship before joining the rest in MLS Next Pro in 2023, Mairs doesn’t see any undue transition or growing pains, because they know what the mission is and would like to adjust accordingly.
“There’s always been quite a large amount of turnover just because of the kind of transient nature of guys coming up and down. If we’re sending half the team to the first team every year, then you know we’ve done our job. So I think one of the things that we try and emphasize a little bit more is that we want to try and win a few more games,” said Mairs. “We’ve added a lot to the front office, so we’re hoping to get more fans into the stadium, we want to pack out Segra Field, and I don’t think it really plays on too much with regards to MLS Next, and I don’t think necessarily the dynamic of our group would be much different; we’ve still got some really exciting younger players coming through, really young players that we felt this year we need to add some experience around, and the aim is gonna be (to) win games whilst developing players. That’s the golden egg of every kind of club, we’ve done that with Kevin Paredes this year, we’re now getting a lot of interest in our younger players. We’ve got six homegrown players on our first team roster, we are developing younger players, and now we’re selling those players to teams in Europe, (which is) great from the first team perspective.”
Mairs added that “we get [that] nobody doesn’t want to lose games, so developing ways to win whilst developing players [is] kind of the emphasis this year. [Adding] Fred, [who’s] played I don’t know how many hundred games at a really high level will help us with Loudoun in terms of those younger guys, having the training facility here right next door to Segra will help that integration and communication of players, so I think we’re really happy with the group. We’ve got quite a few of our guys that are training out in California now with the first team, (so) it’s a little bit fractured, so once we get all those guys back, we’ll have a pretty good team, which is a lot more balanced, a lot more diverse, a lot more experienced in order to win games. I think we’re a lot happier and comfortable with not sending eleven 20-year-olds out into the wilderness this year, so to speak.”
Both Mairs and Martin have been handling Loudoun since its inaugural season in 2019, albeit starting earlier than expected. Mairs replaced Dane Murphy and Martin replaced Richie Williams over the course of the year so they are constants, and seeing the structure slowly put together around Loudoun (and on the organization as a whole) over the time has been impressive, adding dedicated sales staff, media communications representatives off-field, along with video and data analysts dedicated exclusively to Loudoun’s improvement. With the added resources, the uptrend and improvement in the infrastructure have been notable, while not having many growing pains.
“To be honest with you, it’s been pretty seamless,” Mairs said. “Lucy doesn’t have too much to do with Loudoun, I’m obviously the technical director of the first team and Loudoun, so they kind of leave us to it; one of the things that Lucy and Dave (Kasper, President of Soccer Operations) and everybody in the organization has wanted is a lot more vertical alignment, [even] in terms of how we just communicate. The hardest thing having an MLS2 team or a USL team is just communication [from the first team]: ‘we’re a player down, can Ted Ku-DiPietro or Jackson Hopkins train with us?’ I’ve always said that Ryan has the hardest job probably in the organization because he has to manage all the players that basically want to play up but also have to play down, (incorporating) the Academy as well.”
Mairs also covered the tangible infrastructure changes. “I think there’s a lot more kind of a lot more energy around Loudoun because they see these guys every day you know are they using the same facilities, they’re training here, they’re lifting weights here, we’ve added to the coaching staff, we’ve added a little bit in terms of the off-field infrastructure, now these guys can now go and get cryotherapy at Elite Wellness they can go and get massages, the food’s better, so we’re trying to put all these things in place that can give a little bit more to these players, and at the end of the day say ‘Listen now you’ve got everything you need, there’s no real excuses.’”
Martin’s perspective is similar. “With adding Lucy and Sean on the scouting side, more people rolling in the same direction, so from top to bottom it allows Stewart to really spend a lot more time helping us and helping me and putting things together, which [has] been a massive help. Maybe in years past, everybody pulled [in] different directions, and from my end it’s been a massive help having very good people around.“
Using examples of two players who made D.C.’s roster in different paths, Designated Player Taxiarchis Fountas was known to have been scouted by the team as far back as November, while Gaoussou Samaké was a player that Martin saw before the Covid lockdowns, was signed to Loudoun on loan in 2021 before moving up to MLS. Whether it’s through the second-tier affiliate or from Europe, Mairs is involved.
“I think that my kind of role is to kind of float between all the different departments and glue them all together. I try and watch all the Academy games obviously, I’ll split my time between Loudoun and DC now, it’s great because I’m right here right in the other facility,” explained Mairs. “For example, Jackson Hopkins was one coming from the Academy that wasn’t necessarily on our radar as a high potential player, [he] trained with Loudoun for six weeks, we got him into the first team, he’s been training with them ever since, similar to Samaké. Samaké picked up a few injuries, [but] basically trained most of last year with the first team, and just played with Loudoun, so it gave us six months of watching this kid, developing him, we got him English lessons as well, so there’s a process to this whereby we would always try and allow Hernán to have at least six weeks’ look at a player in the training environment before we have to make that decision on whether we pull the trigger and offer him an MLS contract. So that’s a nice thing about the flexibility that we have, and this is credit to Ryan, but I would say Ryan and I do, as well [as] Patrick Ouckama, our academy director, get together at least two or three times a month in a meeting and say ‘OK, who’s coming up, who’s high potential, who needs to train with Loudoun this year?’”
That path is going to be busy. “We’ve got six to eight guys now that we’re gonna probably sign with Loudoun that are new for this year, so it’s a...kind of conveyor belt of talent that those guys that are not quite good enough and need more time, we’ll go back and play games with the Academy, or they’ll training with Loudoun, those guys that we think are training with Loudoun and are ahead of the curve, we may try to get them in for a preseason with first team like we have done already with some of the new Loudoun players,” explained Mairs. “So everybody really benefits one from a development point of view, two from a technical and physical point of view, because it’s great taking those guys back from the first team that been training in a real hard intense physical environment with Hernán, and they came they come back to us ready to go and really first team driven when they start with Loudoun.
Mairs added that United has “contingency plans” to give players that need it more time to grow. “We’ll always give players a chance, and that, to Hernán's credit, he’s been good with letting guys train, even if it’s one, two weeks here and there. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough and I think that we’ve proven that over the last two years.”
On that note, it should be noted that the six players currently on the first team are players that Martin has coached at Loudoun, five of whom he has known since he was more involved with the Academy. Seeing their talents evolve, and in Paredes’ case moving to Bundesliga side Wolfsburg, asking him about their work at the next level was a must.
“(I’m) incredibly proud of their growth,” said Martin. “It shows the pathway is real, but they’re all very determined kids, they’re all very competitive, they’re very different personalities... Whether they signed at the USL before or maybe going to college, it’s been an interesting pathway to see them all grow. Now the next step for all of them is really making like Kevin’s done. Moses (Nyeman) is close, Griffin (Yow) is almost there, it’s like ‘OK, you went from the Academy, then you went to D.C., signed your contract, now make the next jump.’ I still have constant contact with them, but I feel like a little bit of an empty nester. I went out to to training before they went to LA and it was like walking out to one of my old Loudoun or Academy sessions, it was pretty funny actually. But from our end it’s a true pathway, especially when you throw Kevin now going to the Bundesliga, it’s opportunity, it’s a chance for these kids to grow and really push themselves.”