The starting goalkeeper, best defender, top winger, hard-nosed midfielder and a primary attacker are mending. The first-choice striker is hurting, and his likely successor began workouts just this week.
Five preseason friendlies did not seem to offer anything revelatory.
Ready or not, the 34-match campaign and Hernán Losada coaching era begin Saturday night at Audi Field against New York City FC. About 4,500 fans are expected to attend, the first home crowd since March 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic suspended the season.
Expectations will begin low. Whether they rise in the coming months will hinge on players buying into Losada’s principles and executing them well.
“It’s a process,” said Losada, a former Argentine playmaker who left a nascent coaching career in Belgium to become, at 38, MLS’s youngest coach. “When you come to replace a coach after 10 years, you need some time. You can’t change everything in six, seven weeks.
“Rome wasn’t built in a couple of weeks, so it will take some time. It will be good.”
Losada replaced Ben Olsen, who was fired in October amid a 5-12-6 season. Saturday’s match marks the first time since 1997 that Olsen has not been on the roster or coaching staff. He is now an adviser in the front office, which also saw the addition of Lucy Rushton as general manager and move of longtime GM Dave Kasper to president of soccer operations.
Change comes with not only the coach but his philosophy.
“It’s a high-energy, pressing, attacking style of football, winning the ball, looking forward to unbalance opponents,” midfielder Russell Canouse said. “It takes time to build that collectiveness because it is a lot of effort, but it’s exciting. Once that refines itself and takes shape, it will be a real cool style of play to see and identify ourselves with.”
Part of the mission, Losada said, is to entertain. Last year, United scored 25 goals in 23 games, with 12 coming in the last six outings.
“That is what we are going to try to give not only the D.C. United fans but the whole league that, little by little, also neutral supporters [will] want to watch our games,” Losada said.
Before implementing his proactive tactics, Losada needed to set a philosophical foundation.
“It’s a kick in the butt for some guys but in the right way,” goalkeeper Chris Seitz said. “It’s not too much. It’s not too little. It’s just the right amount, and guys are embracing it and believing it.”
As the off-field work takes hold, Losada continues to push for better conditioning. He reiterated this week that the team is not able to play 90 minutes at the pace he prefers and, in all likelihood, he will make the maximum five substitutions Saturday “to get a boost of energy at the end of the game.”
Losada will start the season without several key players.
Seitz will start in place of Bill Hamid, a 10-year starter sidelined several weeks with a calf strain. Center back Steven Birnbaum, a seven-year starter, is out until at least June after undergoing a second surgery for an ankle ailment suffered last fall.
Defensive midfielder Felipe Martins is nearing the end of ACL rehab. Winger Paul Arriola returned early from a loan to Swansea City in the English second division with a quadriceps ailment and remains a few weeks away from playing.
Arriola will be a vital figure after he missed all but the final match of last season with an ACL injury.
Forward Yordy Reyna (hamstring) will miss the first six matches, and striker Ola Kamara (groin) is not 100 percent.
United acquired just two notable players from overseas: U.S. defender Brendan Hines-Ike (Belgium) and Dutch forward Nigel Robertha (Bulgaria), who was cleared to begin workouts Monday.
Hines-Ike will start, and Robertha seems on track to do so soon. “Of course,” Losada said, “I’d like to have [had] Nigel four weeks ago.”
Erik Sorga, a 21-year-old Estonian forward who scored once last year, might start Saturday.
United also signed winger Andy Najar, who began his career in Washington in 2010 and excelled in Belgium before a series of long-term injuries.
For United to be successful, though, returnees who underachieved last year will need to raise their game. The list includes Kamara, Edison Flores, Julian Gressel and Yamil Asad. Flores, a Peruvian World Cup midfielder, was particularly disappointing after a club-record $5 million transfer from Mexican club Morelia.
Losada is also looking for a cluster of homegrown players to take off this year: third-year pro Donovan Pines and teenagers Moses Nyeman, Kevin Paredes and Griffin Yow. (Paredes has been battling injuries.)
“Hernán has come in and changed a lot,” Canouse said. “There have been a lot of principles and ideas thrown at us. You have to be really focused into every single training session and soak it in but still play with a natural ability. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
New York City FC at D.C. United
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Audi Field.
TV: NBC Sports Washington Plus, TeleXitos (Spanish).
Live stream: dcunited.com (metro area only).
Read more on soccer: