It’s been a busy offseason for D.C. United, which means Lucy Rushton has been a busy woman. On top of securing a new Designated Player in Taxi Fountas and the loan deal that brought Ecuador’s top goalscorer Michael Estrada to MLS, United has worked through a trade that sent Paul Arriola to FC Dallas in a deal that broke league records, as well as the largest transfer fee the club has ever brought in for homegrown wingback Kevin Paredes.
Black and Red United had the chance to speak with United’s General Manager via Zoom earlier this week on all of those headline-making moves, plus some broader questions about team philosophy and what fans can expect out of players like Sofiane Djeffal and Ted Ku-DiPietro.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Black and Red United: Let’s start with the big picture. This is the first offseason that the new front office group that you’ve put together has had to retool the squad, and a coach coming off of his first year as well. What aspects from 2021 were top of your list when it came to making moves so United is taking the next step this year?
Lucy Rushton: So I think for us, what the offseason was really about was making sure that we we entered this season with players that — having gone through last year — we felt were the right positional profiles for us in terms of meeting our needs and expectations with regards to how Hernán [Losada] wants to play, and his playing styles and philosophies. And as everybody knows, it’s very demanding physically on the roster, in every position. So for us to really to make room in the roster and to kind of acquire players or move players on that didn’t perhaps fit that, is going to be fundamental to us, because obviously last year Hernán came in and he inherited a team. And so we very much needed to start building a team that fit his style. So that was really very much the kind of ethos of the offseason.
B&RU: Covid-19 seems to have fundamentally changed the international transfer market, due to lost revenue and players making choices as far as where they play based on a new set of factors. How has that impacted making transfers from a United perspective? Has it made things easier, more difficult, or is it just a different set of problems?
LR: Yeah, (chuckles) a different set of problems, yeah, that’s probably a good way of putting it. I don’t think it’s made things significantly easier or more difficult. I think it’s just posed a different set of things that you have to really think about. So obviously, when you’re bringing a player in, they have to have all the right Covid [vaccine] eligibility, and be tested, and all of that kind of stuff at the very start. Have players got a little bit more cautious about where they want to live, in terms of access to family and travel restrictions and stuff? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s impacted us, and I don’t think we’ve really been at a stage with any player where we felt, ‘Damn, we have to move this player on,’ or ‘Damn, we can’t get this player’ because of Covid. So I don’t think it’s really impacted us massively in terms of what we want to do. What it has impacted is our — and everybody else’s — ability to go and see players. To physically be able to go and watch them live, you know, over the Christmas period, were most of Europe was shut down. And when many games went back to being behind closed doors, or you genuinely just couldn’t get in the country. That’s the side of the recruitment process which has been impacted, more than the desire of a player to come or our ability to to actually get them in market once we’ve decided they’re the player for us.
B&RU: How do you adapt to losing that in-person side of it? Do you just lean further into the video and the data that you have available?
LR: Yeah, to some extent. So, you have to rely more on video. You have to, instead of being there live, you have to try and watch more on the screen, which is never ideal. Obviously, you try and get to games, but you’re limited in that you physically can’t, you have to rely on other means. Data, yes. And since I’ve been here, we’ve used data heavily throughout the scouting process, so that’s continued to be involved. But also like you know, jumping on a video call or something with a player, if you get to that stage in the process. That is the next-best step in terms of being able to meet with them personally. So yeah, technology is has been massive, to I’m sure every club in terms of being able to keep abreast of the talent and the players that they’re they’re looking to acquire.
B&RU: How much does the new United Performance Center change things for the club? Not just within the group, but for the proximity to everyone with Loudoun United, and then the transfer side of things when you’re trying to persuade a player to choose United over other options?
LR: It’s massive. You can’t underestimate how big that’s been. You know, we’ve put together [an information] pack now, where we present to the players who are coming in. ‘This is the training facility. This is what you’re come into.’ And for us to be able to sell this now as part of your daily life, and somewhere that you can call home, with facilities which are really second to none in terms of the quality of the pitch, the quality of the grass every day, the views, the scenery, the lifestyle as well of being over here, it’s been huge. The gym is fantastic, the facilities that we have in there in terms of the hydrotherapy, it’s really a massive asset in terms of us being able to attract players to this club. And it’s something that we will lean on and use heavily in doing that, because that now coupled with with playing at Audi Field is a big selling point to a player, because this is your place of work. You’re [at the training facility] 95% of the time, because the 5% you spend on match days is just a very small portion of your week. So for us to really be able to showcase this to players, and for them to see that ‘This is where I get to go to work every day, and these are the facilities that are going to be afforded to me?’ It just checks that box and makes them see that we’re serious. I think that’s the other side as well, is really been able to paint the picture of what we’re trying to do as a club, and where we’re trying to go, and show them that we’re making progress and we’re making steps as a club to to improve ourselves. And we want to give the players the best, and I think in the facility we are doing that now. The area too, you know, looking at looking at Leesburg and looking at the surrounding area and being able to sell that lifestyle to players with young families that can potentially live in Ashburn and the surrounding areas is really important, because for them it feels like, ‘I can set up home here. My family are going to be happy, my children are going to be happy, there are good schools,’ all of that kind of stuff. It’s been a real asset to us.
B&RU: In the past that a lot of players seem to set up in the Virginia suburbs just outside of DC. Since you joined the club, has that location a little further out, maybe a slower pace of life, been something that is more appealing to players that you’ve been looking at?
LR: We have a mixture, if I’m being honest. You have players who probably prefer to be more kind of city-based and kind of in and amongst things, but you do have a lot of players with young families, or starting to look to have a family, who do want that quiet side of life. And a lot of our players who were based in DC, have now actually moved over closer to the training ground. And I think they’re enjoying the green space and the facilities that are available to them here. It has been something which, a lot of players always want to be close to the training ground, wherever it is. I’m the same. Wherever I am, I just need to be close to the training ground... If they don’t want to be in the more suburban or rural part of Ashburn, then they can go into Reston, which maybe is a little busier, or Tysons Corner which is a little bit busier. So without being too far away, there are plenty of options available to them.
B&RU: Digging into some of these moves, there was obviously so much happening, and we see the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t all happen at once. I guess starting with Paul Arriola’s move to FC Dallas, that seemed like a trade that the team wasn’t necessarily looking to make at first. What eventually made that makes sense from the club’s perspective?
LR: There were probably two parts of that. First, I think it’s the personal side of things, and what a player wants to do. As it was made clear, we were not in the market to move Paul on. Paul had a very unique set of [his] personal situation and circumstances which meant that [he wanted a move], he’s spoken publicly about his desire to move on. And I think you have to listen to that, because keeping a player in your roster who’s not happy or content or who isn’t in the right moment in their life to be there, it’s not good for the player, it’s not good for the club, it’s not good for the coach, it’s not good for anybody. So I think that side of it, and being personable, and being human and treating people like humans. We’re all doing a job, but at the end of the day, we have personal lives away from football that may impact our thinking and our decision making, and I think the club showed a lot of respect to Paul in how they treated that situation, and being willing to to abide by his personal situation.
The other side of it is obviously the financial side. It needed to be right for the club as well. Because, you know, as nice as it is to want to help people in that side of that personal situation, the club has invested a lot of money in Paul over numerous years, and been very good to him. So it had to be the right kind of deal as well, for us to give up what is a very valuable player. So there were two real aspects that played into that: Paul and where he was in himself, but then also the interest that we had from from within MLS and clubs outside to actually make it viable and an option that would allow us as a club to then move on from it and grow potentially ourselves from it.
B&RU: With Kevin Paredes, obviously the transfer fee draws so much attention. But it’s also, from a development perspective, a big deal for a player to go from the academy to Loudoun to the first team, succeeding at every step, and now you have this big-money move to one of the best leagues in the world. Maybe this is editorializing, but there has been a perception within the region’s youth soccer scene that United is a rival rather than a team to aspire to, and the team seems to have been working to change that. How much does a move like this one serve as proof of those changes? And how does it serve as a statement within MLS, in terms of measuring up to widely praised talent producers like Dallas and Philadelphia?
LR: I think you hit the nail on the head, right? It’s gonna take a take a big money move, normally, for a player, for that to happen to get the recognition. And you know, Kevin has been in our team for a longer period than the last two weeks when he was transferred. There are numerous players who have come through this academy and had impact in the first team recently: Griffin Yow, Moses Nyeman, you know, there really is a good list of players, like Donovan Pines, there’s so many players that we can talk about here. And really, it’s a case of taking a step back and going, ‘Okay, right. Where are we as an academy, and where do we want people to see us?’ Because actually, the proof’s in the pudding when you get those players coming through, and we’ve got so many more in the pipeline, at Loudoun United as well, that have come through that academy, that go under the radar because it’s not potentially first team at the moment, but are getting good development and good minutes there. Do I think that that people are going to now sit up and kind of take note? I think we’ve edged towards that. I think you probably need two or three players [transferring abroad] to do that before you actually get the recognition of a Dallas and a Philly as you said. So we’re probably a little way off getting that kind of, that rubber stamp. But for us, it’s a process where by now — and we’ve seen it in preseason again here — players coming through from the academy performing well with the first team in preseason, who we’re going to get minutes at Loudoun this year. You know, our homegrowns are coming through, and the more we can do that, the more we’re going to get the recognition. Then we sell another one and they get the recognition. Also, just to have them getting viable minutes in MLS. I think that’s what you see with Philly as well, and with Dallas, is these players are coming in and they’re getting good game time. So the more that that happens with us — and I do anticipate it continuing to go that way over the coming years — then I think we’ll get more recognition there too. It’s not all about just the price you sell a player for.
B&RU: As far as the timing of the Paredes transfer, I’m sure it wasn’t a surprise that teams would be interested in signing him, but was this on the timeline you had expected for that level of international interest? Or was this maybe a little earlier? I know I had been thinking that maybe this summer I’d be writing a ‘Kevin Paredes moves abroad’ kind of story, rather than it happening this winter.
LR: You know, there was no real pressure from our side to sell Kevin in the winter. I think it was always a case of, if the right offer came, and it was right for the club, and right for Kevin, then we would entertain it. We would have happily kept him here another season, and I think to try and project where he would have gone in 12 months time. I think [he would have] come in and perform very well for us this year. He would have maybe gotten to the US men’s national team for the World Cup. So then he goes and has a good World Cup, and then there’s potential to sell him then as well. The key thing really for us was, we were happy to keep Kevin. Kevin, when interest came in for him, had expressed a desire to go and play in Europe. And again, it comes back to that point where you start to try and figure out what’s going to be right for the club and the player as two entities, but then if the price [is right] and somebody comes in and makes you an offer you can’t refuse as well, you have to sit up and listen. Kevin could have stayed here. It was really kind of, it’s definitely not a guarantee on either end. I think ultimately it was the right move for both parties, with him going, because the revenue the club got from it and the money that was paid was substantial. And Kevin gets to go to Europe, where he as a player sees that his future is and wants to develop. So again, things like that really are a dynamic process where, it’s about what’s kind of put in front of you at the time, and how you feel that that works for all parties involved as well.
B&RU: Going back a bit, you mentioned the prospect of younger players continuing to start in MLS. You mentioned Moses Nyeman earlier, a central midfielder. United had multiple veterans there last year, and made offers to some extent to re-sign Júnior Moreno, and at least talks with Felipe, but they’ve both moved elsewhere. I know people reading our site have asked about the depth in that area, so this is kind of a two-parter. First, while I know he’s not the only player vying for starts there, but it does seem like a big moment for Nyeman specifically. What are your thoughts on his prospects this year?
I think we’ve all spoken about Moses for a couple of years now, right? And we forget how young he still is. And for a player like him to be able to develop and take that next step in their career, they ultimately need minutes. They need playing time. So there’s a real fine balance between giving a player that playing time, and then maybe not being ready for it, but then also blocking their pathway to actually getting that playing time that they need to develop. And I think you always have to think about that. If you’re trying to, as we do as a club, we want to promote our homegrowns, we want them to have minutes. We want them to get the time, but [when] their quality is there as well to justify that. You have to really be careful in buying over them, and buying players then that are ultimately going to [mean they’re] not going to get any playing time. That said, MLS and the nature of the season means that there’s plenty of playing time available. So yes, to have numbers in midfield is important, and will continue to be so. Moses has a great chance this year, because you know, previously he did have numbers ahead of him. So at the moment, it’s an opportunity for him now to really kind of take that and get some get some minutes that he probably deserves, and needs, to kick on his progression as well.
B&RU: In a similar position, I know Sofiane Djeffal is closing in on a contract. It’s not done yet, so hypothetically, we all know it’s not that often that a second-round pick gets an MLS contract so quickly any more. What have you seen in him? What drew you to selecting him in the draft, given that he also requires an international roster spot?
LR: That I think it’s kind of, you’ve said it there: The reason Sofiane probably only went in the second round, is because he is an international. You know, had he been an American, then I’m sure he would have gone much higher. Because we saw it, and I’m sure many of other clubs saw, is the quality that he has, both on and off the ball, to play as either a six or an eight in there. He’s physically robust, especially for a player his age. He’s got a good positional awareness, but technically very good as well. He has a good range of pass in him, and he can really see the game, he’s got good vision. So these are things that we had identified when we were watching him at college, and that was an extensive process too. A shout out to all of our team that put a lot of hours and work into watching many, many college players. We felt that Sofiane was was our number one pick, because of all those attributes, and I think it’s a credit to him in how he’s come in and applied himself in preseason, that he’s in the position he’s in now. His attitude and his application, on top of obviously what he’s brought technically and tactically, has been fantastic. It really has, and so you have to give credit to a player when they come into this environment, which is a different and difficult environment for anybody to step into. As a kid coming out of college to then be thrown into first team MLS football, it’s a big change, and he’s handled himself and the situation extremely well, and put himself in the best position really now to to kick on. I think he’ll have a very good and long career in MLS.
B&RU: To stay with some of these new players, you brought Brad Smith in, and I know from watching him with Seattle, he seems like a pretty natural fit as a wingback in a system like Hernán’s, but he also plays in a different style from Kevin Paredes. What aspects of his game convinced you that he was the right fit once you knew the transfer with Kevin was going to happen?
LR: We’ve done a lot of work on a lot of different players in that position. There are numerous things that with Brad we thought would make him the right player. Mostly it’s about his physical capacity and his technical ability on the ball. In terms of our system and our style of play, we place such a big emphasis on our fullbacks getting forward, supporting the attack, being able to to really work up and down the line and to deliver quality into the box. And that’s something that we felt that Brad offered us, and we feel that we’ve now got the two best wingbacks in the league in terms of what we can put out, and and we feel that that’s going to really give us impetus in attacking moments and be a stronghold in how we want to play. But in addition to that, you know, there’s so much with Brad in terms of his experience within the league as well, which gives us as a roster, experience. He’s [at the] perfect age. He’s experienced in MLS, and we felt that with our roster where it was, and having a lot of youth in there as well, he could bring bring more in terms of that side of things as well. We also know from character references, that he’s a great, great professional and a great guy off the pitch, and he’s come in and shared all of those qualities. He really has fitted into the group seamlessly. We already see aspects of his leadership skills coming through. So for us it was a real no-brainer in that sense. He was our number one target. Having gone through, you know, ‘Do we stay and buy within MLS? Do we go outside of MLS and bring [a player] from abroad?’ He came out top of our list, so we were delighted to be able to get him, and look, we were in a position where we could go and spend some money on him. We felt like we really wanted to do that, and put a statement out going, ‘Okay, we’re being serious in how we how we want to attack, and how we define our style of play here.’
B&RU: Looking into Michael Estrada, he wasn’t playing a lot with Toluca. But then with Ecuador, he’s their top scorer in World Cup qualifying. I’m not asking you to comment on Toluca’s coaching staff and their thought process, but what have you seen out of Estrada, whether it’s in Mexico or with the national team, that points to his play with Ecuador being what we’re going to see with United?
LR: Saying that you don’t comment on any other coaching staff or anything because everyone has different ways of doing things, but ultimately, players just find clubs and find coaches that fit for them, and which don’t fit for them. There are so many examples in world football where players have maybe had slower periods, and then moved on and seen their career really kick off. So you know, what we’ve seen in Michael is his athletic ability, his ability to score goals, and score good goals. His ability to hold up play, bring others in, but his pace as well, to run in behind, to take players on with the ball, to create for others. He really does have a lot of technical and physical ability, which we think again, is perfect in our system and for how we want to play. You know, did Toluca see the best of him? Probably not. And that’s really a case now of us being able to go — in our management style, obviously with a South American coach who can speak the same language, who has cultural similarities — ‘Can we can we get the best out of his personality, and his character on the pitch too?’
B&RU: Looking to a future move, you’ve signed Taxi Fountas to a pre-contract. Looking into his pedigree, the fact that he spent so much time at clubs that are very much high-pressing clubs, and the fact that he can play a couple of different roles, it seems to point towards what you value in a player that’s going to get a Designated Player-level deal. What convinced you that he was the right choice?
LR: If anyone’s seen Taxi play, then they would have seen his quality as a player. He’s everything that you want in a DP. For me, he’s firstly a proven goalscorer and goal creator at a very good level. He’s played, in formations and in teams similar to ours in terms of their style, as you said, which whenever you’re bringing a player into a club, you always want to know, ‘We play like this. Are they going to fit our system? Are they going to fit our style?’, and that’s ultimately what you’re recruiting for. So to have that background of playing in that way, is always such a big [box to tick] in that sense. The quality and the level that he’s been playing at, when you watch him and you see the quality that he’s up against, in terms of defenders, then you know that he can come here and be successful and be impactful. He shows, [as with Smith], leadership skills, leadership qualities. He is a prime age, in terms of being at the peak of his career. And again, we felt that he could come here and continue to grow and develop, and not be at the tail end of his career. So for us, he’s got longevity in him, because he’s a prime age. You touched on it there, in terms of the positional fluidity, again with how we play — and in any MLS team — to be able to adapt how you play, and play different players in slightly different positions and different formations, it just makes you more versatile as a team. Whether you react to your opponents and how they’re playing, whether you want to change how you play based on other players’ availability, to have a player who can really just switch and play different roles, in different positions, is so valuable. Obviously the off-the-ball contribution as well. Whenever we look at attackers, you know, we want to see about what they’re willing to do in terms of [when] they’re off the ball and Taxi is fantastic in that aspect as well. So he really was for us everything that we look for in a DP, which is gonna be impactful and win us games. So we’re delighted to have got him, because we know there were numerous other teams that were chasing his signature within MLS and within Europe. So for us to attain him was a real coup for the club.
B&RU: There is a rumor that you’re keeping the door open to bringing him in earlier than the end of his contract in the summer. I know that depends on Rapid Wien as well, but is that rumor accurate?
LR: Yeah, very much so. We’re doing what we can to get Taxi here sooner rather than later. So yeah, hopefully we’ll be in a position to do that, and we’ll see him Audi Field much before July for sure.
B&RU: Doing our season preview, when you write out every player added this offseason, it hits you how many have come in through the USL ranks. Last year you had Drew Skundrich and Tony Alfaro, and now this year there’s Hayden Sargis, and of course Ted Ku-DiPietro got his homegrown deal after playing well for Loudoun. For years in MLS, it seemed that after age 23-24, if you’re still in USL, teams would shy away from you. What has changed that equation for United, where this is an avenue you’re looking at?
LR: I think we’re accepting a little bit more as a sport that you get late developers, or that you get players who can actually go and get minutes at a slightly lower level, and then arrive in MLS in better shape for doing so. I think Teddy Ku-DiPietro is a great example of that. You know, he’s just had a fantastic year with Loudoun, and is now full of confidence and has come in and had a really good preseason with the first team. Now, you know, you put him in first team football three years ago, and he doesn’t get the game time, he doesn’t get the minutes he needs to develop, and maybe his confidence isn’t where it is now. And so I think we’re being smarter in terms of how we view players, and not seeing that their ceiling is at the age of 19 or 20. But seeing that players have have an ability to continue to develop in the right environments, going on later into their career and actually for them to spend some time earlier playing at a lower level is of benefit to them. So I think it’s something that’s going to continue, because I think as we go on, we’re going to continue to see success stories coming through USL, of players that have been embedded there, and then got good game time and push through to the first team later. And I think it’s a benefit to the player and to the club, that you get a better player at the end of the day for it.
B&RU: This last one is something of an organizational chart question. In the last couple of years, United has really beefed up as a front office. You obviously are one of those additions, while several other people have come aboard in a technical staff role, while some people who have been around for a bit have new roles within the group. How has that changed the process of recruiting and evaluating the roster?
LR: Yeah, for sure. I think if I look back to 8-10 months ago, when I first came here, you know, there were a lot of staff wearing a lot of different hats. And it’s difficult for people to really excel and thrive in what they’re best at in those environments, because they’re trying to do so much. And I think bringing in the staff we have has allowed us to bring in individuals specific to those areas who can concentrate 24 hours a day, seven days a week 100% of their time, on those areas. Whether that’s scouting, whether it’s data science, whether it’s mental health, all of these areas, which now we have specialists working in, which not only gives us the specialist treatment — whether it’s the players, or to the work that we’re doing — but it allows them to focus on those individual concepts and really get the best from them. So, you know, we’ve had numerous staff, as you say, come in over the last year and it’s given a lot of support, especially to people like myself, Dave [Kasper] and Stu [Stewart Mairs], who are operating at this level, to be able to have those people that we trust and that we know can go and do those jobs and really get the best out of them, is massive for us as well. All of them have come in, and we’re still a small staff. We’re still a very small staff, compared to other MLS teams, and we’ve got good people here. We’ve got a great dynamic, people who want to work hard, people who are very good and qualified in what they do, and it’s driving our processes now. You know, how we scout players, how we manage the players who are already at the club. Having those individuals here is really allowing us to drive those individual sections, and hopefully it’s going to take us to the next level.