For the first time since 2009, D.C. United will have a new head coaching at the helm and he will hope to spark the team back in the right direction this season.
Hernan Losada steps in at Audi Field for the first of what he hopes to be several successful seasons in MLS. The Argentina makes the move to the United States from Belgium, where he served as manager of Beerschot for the past two-and-a-half seasons.
Losada, 38, is still fairly new in coaching, but won’t have much waiting time to get acquainted with his new set up in D.C.
“Our main goal is when you are watching D.C. United at least have a good feeling with the way we are playing and you know exactly what we want,” Losada said in a conference call Tuesday. “That’s the biggest part — to have an identity — so the players know exactly what to do in every situation of the game.”
“Overall it’s been a good time with Hernan so far as he tries to get us ready for the upcoming season,” D.C. United midfielder Russell Canouse told SBI. “We have been transitioning into the 3-5-2 formation that he likes to play and that he used in Belgium and we saw a lot of positives with it in camp. Now it’s about getting it to translate into competitive matches.”
Canouse is a seasoned veteran in the Black and Red squad and is one of many players hoping to impress in Losada’s setup. The 25-year-old will be joined by Julian Gressel, Yamil Asad, and Edison Flores in the ever-growing midfield corps, one that hopes to drastically improve on a 13th-place Eastern Conference finish in 2020.
The defense could have a new look with Losada’s three-back setup missing its top center back option. Steve Birnbaum will miss at least the first few months of the regular season due to offseason ankle surgery, forcing Frederic Brillant, Donovan Pines, and loan acquisition Brendan Hines-Ike all into the possibility of leading the backline.
“Steve is a guy who has been in the league for a long time and his leadership will be missed early in the season,” Canouse said. “However, I think Brendan’s arrival will help solidify things somewhat and we also have Donovan and Fred who have experience in the league. It’s going to be a collective team effort to sure things up defensively.”
Veteran goalkeeper Bill Hamid will remain the team’s No. 1 keeper, but he will miss the opening month of the season with a calf injury. Fellow veteran Chris Seitz will likely start between the posts for the time being.
Paul Arriola will likely play a role this spring after returning from his loan spell at Swansea City early. The U.S. Men’s National Team winger missed all but one game last season due to a torn ACL and will be eager to get back to playing regularly.
Offseason acquisitions Nigel Robertha, Adrien Perez, and first-round draft pick Kimarni Smith could all be in the mix for minutes as D.C. United tries to give its offense a boost in 2021.
Ola Kamara remains the top striker option for the Black and Red despite only scoring four goals in 20 league appearances last season. The 31-year-old will be joined by Erik Sorga and Yordy Reyna in the offensive contingent of Losada’s squad, all three who lacked any true consistency in 2020.
“Just like our defense, offensively we have to be better with the chances that become available to us,” Canouse said. “We have talent on the offensive side of the field and now it’s about giving that a spark for a long, consistent run. Hernan’s style of play should also help provide opportunities for our offensive players, so they need to be ready.”
Here is a closer look at 2021 D.C. United:
2021 D.C. United Season Preview
2020 Finish: 13th place in East (5-12-6, 21 points, missed the playoffs)
Key Acquisitions: Nigel Robertha, Brendan Hines-Ike, Jon Kempin, Adrien Perez.
Key Losses: Gelman Rivas, Axel Sjoberg, Oniel Fisher, Earl Edwards Jr. Ulises Segura.
Newcomer to Watch: Adrien Perez
With the D.C. United attack needing a spark, Adrien Perez could help provide that following his move to the club from LAFC. The 25-year-old only registered one goal in 23 previous MLS appearances, but was in the shadows of talented players such as Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, and Brian Rodriguez. D.C. United will be needing goals immediately and if Kamara can’t deliver them then that could open the door for Perez.
Pressure is On: Ola Kamara
Veteran striker Ola Kamara didn’t live up to the hype in his first full season in D.C. and will need for a better haul in 2021 to remain the lead striker going forward. Kamara only scored four goals in 20 league appearances last season, his worst haul in a regular season yet.
The Norwegian used to rack up double-digit goalscoring campaigns and will need to find that spark again for D.C. United to have a chance in the Eastern Conference.
After a 13th-place finish in 2020, the goal for D.C. United will be to play more consistently in 2021 and hopefully fight for a playoff spot.
With Losada implementing new tactics in the squad, the early part of the season may bring tough moments, but the hope will be that D.C. adapts to Losada’s approach in time to make a run at the playoffs.
“It’s a process,” defender Frederic Brillant said about Losada’s tactics. “We have a new style of play, so we have to figure it out and work on it. The last two games, you can see we have an identity and we know exactly where we are going…We are all on the same page.”
Arriola’s return and the playmaking abilities of Julian Gressel and Yamil Asad will be key for the Black and Red this season. If all three can form a strong partnership in Losada’s attacking corps, then D.C. United could give many teams trouble going forward.
Edison Flores, Junior Moreno, Russell Canouse, and Felipe will be itching for minutes in the heart of midfield and all bring something different to the table. Felipe and Canouse are veterans in the league and bring an aggressive nature to the game, as does Moreno.
“I think we have a very diverse midfield corps and everyone will need to play a part if we want to be successful,” Canouse said. “We have clever guys with the ball, and we also have guys who are physical and can track a lot of ground. In camp we’ve seen a good mix of both and now it’s about bringing the best out of each other starting this month.”
Flores will look to make an impact in midfield, whether that is starting or off the bench. Kevin Paredes and Moses Nyeman are young academy players who could see time as well after featuring frequently in 2021.
“We have some really exciting youth players on our roster and I’ve been really pleased with all of them,” Canouse said. “Griffin, Kevin, Donovan, and even some others have stepped up to the challenge and even got some consistent minutes last season. Now for them it’s about taking the next step this season and being ready to make an impact when called upon.”
Kamara’s disappointing 2020 campaign will need to improve this time around, especially with Erik Sorga, Griffin Yow, and Nigel Robertha fighting for minutes. After scoring 48 goals from 2016-18, Kamara has since only tallied seven in 25 league outings.
Defensively, the backline will also need to tighten up, especially after conceding 41 goals in 23 matches last season (second-most in Eastern Conference). Birnbaum’s injury won’t help Losada’s early experiences at Audi Field, but luckily he will have his veteran center back to call on at some point this season.
Brillant is an MLS veteran while Pines is a talented young defender in D.C. United’s system. Hines-Ike also brings plenty of experience from abroad and should help solidify the backline, especially with Losada going with a three centerback system.
It will be tough for D.C. United to get back into the playoffs and start the season on a positive note with several key starters out, but as long as they make progress from 2020 then it could be the start of an exciting future.
“At this point, we can only play the way we want for 60, 65, 70 minutes, not more than that,” Losada said when asked about the club’s fitness. “It will take some time to get that intensity and energy we are using in the games to be able to play that way for 90 minutes. I don’t believe from a physical point of view we will be ready [for the season opener at Audi Field], but we improve a lot comparing with where we are coming from.”
“We just need to get back to playing consistently and I think the results will take care of themselves,” Canouse said. “It may take some time in the early matches to get to where we want to be with a new system, but overall I think we have to be ready to send a message from the opening weeks. If we can start strong, then we will put ourselves into a good position for the long haul.”
D.C. United Roster
Goalkeepers: Bill Hamid, Jon Kempin, Chris Seitz.
Defenders: Steven Birnbaum, Frederic Brillant, Michael DeShields, Jacob Greene, Brendan Hines-Ike, Joseph Mora, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Donovan Pines.
Midfielders: Paul Arriola, Yamil Asad, Russell Canouse, Edison Flores, Julian Gressel, Felipe Martins, Júnior Moreno, Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes, Yordy Reyna, Griffin Yow.
Forward: Ola Kamara, Nigel Robertha, Adrien Perez, Kimarni Smith, Erik Sorga.