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In Hernán Losada’s mind, D.C. United is fearless and fit. Can the reality match his vision?

Hernán Losada is in his second season with D.C. United. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Hernán Losada will begin his second season as D.C. United’s coach Saturday evening, but in many ways, it’s his first.

The roster is more contoured to his agenda, more so through departures than initial arrivals. Returnees showed up at training camp in better shape after obeying an offseason regimen in which every calorie burned and sprint completed was recorded.

A new training center in Leesburg is now fully operational, ending the shuttles between Audi Field and a spartan practice facility in RFK Stadium’s shadow. Without pandemic delays and adjustments, Losada operated a normal preseason camp.

And then there is Losada himself. In recent interviews, he said he has drawn from the experiences of a maiden year, not just with a new team, but in a new league, a city and a country he barely knew.

“I feel a lot better,” said the 39-year-old Argentine, who played and coached in Belgium for most of 15 years before accepting United’s offer last winter. “I know the competition a lot better. The country, the culture, the weather circumstances, the travel. So I am in a better spot as a coach.”

“I really hope the first year of experience,” he added, “will help me make even better decisions and to help the team achieve our goals.”

By no means did Losada receive a mulligan for his first season, which featured stretches of sumptuous soccer but, amid an autumn swoon, ended one point short of a playoff berth. Though disappointed, the organization recognized Losada’s learning curve and the time necessary to reshape team culture and tactics.

And while expectations outside the clubhouse are tempered this year — prognosticators pick the club to finish no better than the middle of the pack in the 14-team Eastern Conference — there is a sense Losada’s influence is taking hold ahead of Saturday’s 6 p.m. opener at home against expansion Charlotte FC.

“He put his stamp on us last year, but it was still developing,” wing back Julian Gressel said. “It wasn’t so introductory this year. It’s a little more advanced and detailed. We could do the work early in preseason because all the guys who were back knew how we wanted to play and who we are.”

Losada wants to play high-tempo, pressuring soccer that forces turnovers in an opponent’s defensive end and allows United to strike quickly. When effective last year, United stung teams with a rush of goals, such as in a 7-1 victory over Toronto FC. When ineffective, United was exposed, such as in a 6-0 defeat at New York City FC.

What to know about the 2022 MLS season

It’s a demanding system, one that requires prime conditioning and threatens to exhaust or injure players who can’t keep up. Unfit at the start of the 2021 season and pushed hard by Losada late in the campaign, United was constantly nursing soft-tissue injuries.

“They come back in better shape than last year,” Losada said Thursday. “Even our list of injured players is a lot smaller!”

For much of the offseason, the roster was a lot smaller. The team cut ties with many veterans who either didn’t fit into Losada’s plans or couldn’t reach contract terms: Yamil Asad, Joseph Mora, Yordy Reyna, Felipe Martins and Júnior Moreno.

With the role of U.S. national team winger Paul Arriola unclear, United traded him to FC Dallas for the largest financial package in MLS history.

Losada did not want to lose rising star Kevin Paredes, an electrifying player who fit perfectly into his system. But when German club Wolfsburg offered more than $7 million for the 18-year-old wing back, United accepted.

Only a few roster slots have been filled, most notably by Michael Estrada, an Ecuadoran national team forward, and Brad Smith, Paredes’s replacement who arrived via a trade with the Seattle Sounders.

Taxiarchis Fountas, a Greek attacker for Rapid Vienna, will become United’s highest-paid player but isn’t scheduled to join the team until summer. United is seeking to strike a deal that would allow him to arrive much sooner.

To foster competition for playing time, Losada wants two players in each position, but “that is something we still don’t have,” he said.

Ola Kamara, MLS’s co-leading scorer, remains on the team — for now. United has entertained trade offers for the Norwegian striker, who is in the final year of his contract. Kamara missed much of training camp because of health and safety protocols.

United is in the market for two attackers, a defensive midfielder and a backup goalkeeper, Losada said. MLS’s first trade and transfer deadline is May 4, and the second runs from July 7 to Aug. 4.

“Whenever guys get in, we’ll be happy to have them right away because we need them,” defender Brendan Hines-Ike said. “That’s clear. We need more players on the team. For an MLS season, we need more depth.”

Losada is counting on Peruvian World Cup attacker Edison Flores to rebound from two disappointing seasons — “We all hope this will be his year,” Losada said — and for midfielders Moses Nyeman, 18, and Sofiane Djeffal, a second-round draft pick from Oregon State, to step into prominent roles.

Fountas and Flores are designated players — their salaries exceed standard league guidelines — and United is aiming to add a third DP, if not this spring then this summer.

That requires additional spending, something United has not done at the pace of many other clubs.

“There will always be teams that spend more than us,” Losada said. “Money is not always the most important thing. It’s about building a roster and finding the right pieces for your style of play, and we’re working on that.”

He conceded, though, that United needs a third designated player “if we want to be competitive.”

The long-range goal, Losada said, is to be more than just competitive.

“Are you making the playoffs just to get kicked in the first round? Or are you making the playoffs to be competitive in them?” he said. “We are going in the right direction. We made good steps forward and started a good foundation last year to continue building this year.”

Asked whether, after a year on the job, he believes he is building a team in his image, one that will perform as he envisions, Losada said: “We will see. We are still waiting for pieces. The moment the pieces arrive, you can ask me that question again.”

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