Loudoun United usually started the preseason with an incomplete squad, one of many challenges that the MLS-owned USL affiliate went through as part of their inherent DNA. And when D.C. United would return home for their final preseason days in past seasons, Loudoun welcomed players like Kevin Paredes, Ted Ku-DiPietro, and Luis Zamudio into their fold, and the preseason, with a full squad, could be completed with a compressed schedule and a young group.
In the wake of D.C. transferring a controlling share of ownership to Attain Sports & Entertainment, and Loudoun’s transition to a more independent focus, preseason is different now. The players onfield could comprise a full gameday squad of 18 if pressed into action on a breezy February day, and the players are older and bigger than the teenagers Segra Field has hosted.
“I think last year at this time, I had like, 7 guys signed,” coach Ryan Martin said after practice. “So for me to have 16, 17, 18 guys is a major difference, and just the quality of the soccer, the quality of the person, and the mentality, it’s been a really good start to the preseason.”
While the turnover and amount of players in camp is a change from past seasons, one of the first roster decisions was to retain Dane Jacomen, who left college early last season to turn pro and has trained with D.C. as an Academy alum. Heading into the season with Zamudio on the first team, the Loudoun starting job would appear to be his, but he is tamping down expectations.
“I don’t really think about it that way, I just try to come in every day and do the best I can because I know that I have a lot to give to the team,” Jacomen said. “I come here and work my ass off every day, and we all have that expectation to push each other to be the best versions of ourselves.”
Kwame Awuah is the oldest player in the group (having turned 27 in December), but in his short career has made an imprint, winning two Canadian Premier League Championships (and appearing in a third Final) with Forge FC, and helped St. Louis City SC 2 to the MLS Next Pro Championship Final in the League’s inaugural season last year, and co-hosts the podcast Top Bin Talks which focuses on Canadian Soccer. His thoughts as the team’s de facto veteran are similar.
“I watched a couple of their games, and they’re a team that has the right philosophy, they want to play a specific playing style and I think they’re hungry,” he said. “You want to do better than they did last year, especially making the playoffs, that’s a big goal of ours and from my background and experience, they saw my profile and thought I’d be a perfect fit here.”
Along with players Martin knows and others coming from other Leagues, he also brought in other players from MLS sides in 2022, including Zach Ryan, who appeared in 17 games with the New York Red Bulls’ first and second teams.
“I played last year with Red Bulls 2 and they were competitive games against great teams. (But) fully grown men competing and trying to make a livelihood in the League was something I wanted to be a part of and Ryan has done a tremendous job with the team over the last couple of years and I wanted to be a part of it, and (I’m) so excited for the season.”
Martin’s approach to building the roster began shortly after the season ended as it usually does, with some wrinkles. “That was the goal of the organization with new ownership, so it’s still a bit of a hybrid, but we did want an older team that can compete more. We wanted more pros signed because you can only have three people coming down from one team, so for us, we knew we needed a really strong base.”
Martin continued, saying as things headed into the season, things will be less challenging tactically. “I’ve got more flexibility this year to do things kind of my way and the fortunate part is with Wayne (Rooney) and his staff, we have a lot of similar thoughts on the game and how we want to build and play in the middle third and the structure. So that part kind of aligned itself as opposed to having to change and adapt, but I’ve got significantly more leeway in terms of how I want to do it.”
“I’m learning a lot about the way (he) wants to set up and I find that a lot of the principles that I try to play are the principles that (he) tries to hold his team to,” Ryan said about Martin’s approach. “Just being aggressive pressing, trying to win the ball and go to goal but also cherishing possession, trying to break teams down and taking care of the ball.”
The players seem to share the optimism that comes with preseason and new beginnings. “It’s been a really strong start to camp, I think the group has gelled together pretty quickly,” Jacomen said. “We have a lot of turnover from the group last year, I believe we have only four returning players as it stands right now. And we’ve been doing a good job of bringing the guys into the locker room together and that’s obviously going to translate onto the field because the on-field product has been very good.”
Awuah looks forward to the challenge of extending his postseason appearance streak with a team that has yet to experience one. “The guys are hungry, the guys are energetic, we all get along right off from Day One, and it’s a great experience,” he declared after practice. “I think if we keep that camaraderie going, it should be a good time. From my background, all the places I’ve gone, we’ve ended up going to playoffs, championships, and to help bring that type of pedigree and that type of intensity to Loudoun. So hopefully, I can lead by example and hopefully, we can create some magic here.”
Martin sees the differences not only off the field but off it as well. “There’s been a significant push in terms of the front office with Doug (Raftery) and his group, and ticketing, marketing, and sponsorship. So there’s been a huge push to really try and make this something special in Leesburg, and Doug and his team have done a tremendous job with it. So now there are the resources and there’s the opportunity to make this a hard place to play for the opposition, and make this a little fortress.”
Loudoun United open their season Saturday, March 11, when they play at Memphis 901 FC.