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D.C. United hopes to open training camp in better shape than 2021

Coach Hernán Losada and defender Brendan Hines-Ike are aiming for a fitter squad this MLS season. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Brendan Hines-Ike ran in the cold of Minnesota while visiting in-laws. Julian Gressel rose before the sun — and before his infant daughter — for workouts on a Jamaican beach. Steven Birnbaum took to the streets of London during a short vacation.

And before doing so, all three D.C. United players made sure to attach high-end smartwatches provided by the club days after the 2021 MLS season ended and before everyone scattered for the two-month break.

“I’ve been wearing it almost every day,” Gressel said. “It became part of the routine.”

A year ago, Hernán Losada, a first-year coach with up-tempo tactics and high fitness demands, lamented the condition of players in training camp. So this year, along with the usual offseason workout instructions, United equipped the players with devices to record heart rates, running distances and burned calories, among other metrics.

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After each workout, players were required to upload the data to a program monitored by the staff. The goal was to raise baselines before the players even arrive at United Performance Center in Leesburg this weekend for the start of a six-week camp leading to the Feb. 26 opener against Charlotte FC at Audi Field.

Tracking offseason conditioning is not new, but with the watches, “it’s just a little bit more advanced,” Birnbaum said. “It does hold you accountable. You’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to upload this.’ I’ve just enjoyed checking my statistics.”

It did not matter whether the players were outside their home or outside the country.

Gressel, a wing back entering his third season in Washington, needed to integrate workouts into a recent vacation to the Caribbean with his wife, Casey, their 15-month-old daughter, Sophie, and others.

That meant doing the most extensive work early in the morning — including soccer-specific movement — before enjoying island life.

“It’s pretty hard on the sand,” Gressel said of cutting and sprints. “The next time I did it on a grass area.”

Offseason commitments, he said, are part of the job, particularly in Losada’s demanding system.

“You make sacrifices, and even though you’re on vacation, you have to get ready for the season,” Gressel said. “It was definitely something you had to think about and something that was part of daily life and the daily routine.”

The aim was to get up to speed earlier in training camp and avoid the fitness shortcomings that Losada bemoaned last spring. A week into 2021 workouts, Losada said he “didn’t expect to have a team so unfit. It’s taking a lot of energy to become a fit team.”

Last year was unusual, though. Losada was not hired until January, and because of the pandemic, players were off for more than four months. United started 2-5-0 and didn’t hit its stride until July before it faded down the stretch and missed the playoffs by one point.

Hard workouts on players unaccustomed to Losada’s standards took a toll. Several suffered muscle injuries, and others failed to meet the coach’s expectations.

Through a team spokesman this week, Losada said he and his staff did not want to comment on the fitness plan at this time.

The players, though, seem to have embraced it.

“It’s no surprise [Losada] wants us to be much fitter than when we came in last preseason,” said Hines-Ike, a defender entering his second season with United after five years in Europe. “They have put together a pretty tough program. The watch tracks [everything], so it keeps everyone honest.”

If players don’t meet certain goals or don’t upload data, “somebody would be in touch,” Gressel said.

“That didn’t happen to me,” he said with a laugh, “so I think I was all set. It’s been in-depth, and honestly it’s been a lot.”

Success in Losada’s system is predicated on players applying pressure on the opponent all over the field, forcing giveaways and seizing possession for quick-strike threats. Except for the goalkeeper, no one is spared.

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When United implemented the plan effectively, it was an entertaining team to watch — one of Losada’s aspirations since he arrived in Washington from Belgian club Beerschot. The peak was an 11-game, 27-goal stretch.

Injuries, though, forced Losada to constantly change the lineup and rely on a thinning bench. This year he hopes a foundation of fitness will translate into a healthier squad and sustained success over the 7½-month regular season.

Almost everyone reporting for the start of camp is familiar with Losada’s ideas; United has not made any significant roster moves yet despite cutting ties with eight players and remaining locked in contract negotiations with at least players who became free agents. Eight of 26 players have little or no high-level pro experience.

Nonetheless, the holdovers say they are ready to hit the ground running.

“It helps having Hernán here for a year now, so we know what he wants,” Birnbaum said. “Guys were fit at the end of the season, so you have a better baseline. This offseason, everyone worked on keeping up with it. It was definitely a lot of work, and everyone seemed to put in the work.”

Notes: Paul Arriola (United States) and Edison Flores (Peru) will miss the start of camp because of national team duty. …

Goalkeepers coach Zach Thornton left the club after seven seasons and joined the Houston Dynamo. Head athletic trainer Brian Goodstein departed after 19 years.

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