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D.C. United fires coach Hernán Losada after sluggish start to season

Hernán Losada was in his second season at the helm. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

D.C. United fired coach Hernán Losada on Wednesday, barely over a year into a tenure that showed promise last season but sputtered this spring amid cracks in his relationships with some players and the front office.

United is last in MLS’s Eastern Conference (six points through six matches) after fading down the stretch in 2021 and missing the playoffs by one point. Chad Ashton, a longtime D.C. assistant, was named interim coach, but team officials indicated he will oversee the team for the rest of the year and have an opportunity to earn the permanent job.

“We were concerned with our direction,” said Dave Kasper, United’s president of soccer operations. “The start of the season was not what we expected, but it’s not just this year. We weren’t happy with the way things finished last year. … It’s about the last 15 to 20 games. We have a talented group we like, and we expect to get more from them.”

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On Tuesday, Losada guided United to a 3-0 victory over third-division Flower City Union in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. The team returned from Rochester, N.Y., immediately after the game, and Losada was told of his dismissal Wednesday morning by Kasper and General Manager Lucy Rushton, people close to the situation said. Ownership, led by Jason Levien, backed their decision, one person said.

In MLS play, United (2-4-0) is coming off a 3-2 home defeat to Austin FC on Saturday. D.C. led 2-0 after playing its finest half of the season, but after Ola Kamara’s red card left it shorthanded for the entire second half, United yielded three late goals for a fourth consecutive setback (including three at Audi Field). In its previous match, D.C. conceded a late goal and lost at home to Atlanta, 1-0.

Losada, 39, finished with a 16-19-5 record, including 4-8-1 since October. The victories this season came against Charlotte, an expansion team, and Cincinnati, the league’s worst for several years.

In a text message, Losada said he needed time to process the team’s decision. “I’m still in shock,” he added. Losada was under contract through the 2023 season.

The move was a surprise, in part because United had stuck so long with Losada’s predecessor, Ben Olsen, who, despite an overall losing record, lasted more than 10 seasons, a club record.

“We didn’t want this season to get away from us,” one club official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly. “Now’s the time.”

Losada was an unexpected choice in early 2021, having retired as a player in 2018 and logged less than two years as a head coach with Belgian club Beerschot. Ashton, who has been with the organization since 2007, was among the finalists.

United officials were enamored with Losada’s high-energy, attack-minded style, which, when working properly, produced entertaining soccer and good results. But his hard-charging ways took a toll.

Players privately grumbled about him wearing them down mentally and physically, and the team suffered a string of long-term injuries last season. Late in the year, United played like an exhausted team.

On his “Zee Soccer Podcast” with Chicago Fire forward Fabian Herbers on Wednesday, United wing back Julian Gressel said: “It definitely was a lot on a daily basis, and some guys didn’t really buy in as much as I did. … He wasn’t able to give us a bit more freedom and wasn’t able to meet the players maybe halfway on certain things. … Maybe that led to a disconnect.”

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At Losada’s request, United changed its medical staff this winter, but the soft-tissue ailments have continued. The latest major loss was oft-injured defender Andy Najar, who, playing a more demanding position for the first time this year, was hurt Saturday. He will miss six to eight weeks with a muscle strain. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid is expected to miss a month, and Brad Smith and Moses Nyeman also are nursing muscular injuries.

Losada’s relationship with the players led to some asking to leave the team, three people close to the situation said. Among them was Paul Arriola, the U.S. national team winger who was traded to FC Dallas in January.

“There were a lot of strained relationships,” one person close to the situation said.

“Clearly after he was appointed, there was an excitement about everything. … Then it starts fading a little bit as more and more guys get hurt, [and] they get frustrated with the way we do things,” Gressel said. “It was certainly not as it was like last year at the beginning of this year. Guys wanted more freedom, a bit more say in things. It was difficult at times to get that from him.”

In turning to Ashton, Kasper said: “Chad has got a great relationship with the players. His man-management style is excellent. His game preparation and in-game management are all good things. He understands the league and the club culture. And he’s paid his dues; he’s earned this opportunity.”

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Losada wasn’t getting the most out of United’s high-priced players. Peruvian World Cup attacker Edison Flores, one of United’s two designated players, has failed to meet expectations over two-plus seasons.

However, Flores signed with the team before Losada arrived. And until Greek attacker Taxi Fountas made his debut Saturday, United was operating with just one designated player this season. Each team is allowed three, and although team officials have said they’re aiming to sign a third, there doesn’t appear to be any substantial movement.

Before the season, United sold its rising young star, Kevin Paredes, to German club Wolfsburg.

A four-time MLS Cup champion, United has not won a playoff game since 2015 and hasn’t advanced to the final since 2004. It has kept one of the lower payrolls in the 28-team league.

Losada and the front office did not always see eye to eye, either. The latest issue developed this week, two people said, when Losada wanted to take captain Steven Birnbaum to the U.S. Open Cup match, even though many regulars were left behind to prepare for Saturday’s MLS game against New England at Audi Field.

With United set to compete in inclement weather on artificial turf, club officials didn’t want Birnbaum, who plays 90 minutes almost every game, to suit up against a third-division opponent. He ended up not traveling.

Last year, Losada often referenced United’s modest payroll and underdog status, talking points that didn’t sit well with the organization. Early this year, he complained about the condition of the field at the new training center in Leesburg. Club officials asked him to tone it down.

Lately, Losada seemed to keep any lingering issues behind closed doors, instead publicly emphasizing United’s development of young players and the recent acquisitions of Fountas and midfielder Chris Durkin.

“I don’t think we’ve put together a full 90 minutes of good soccer, and I don’t think we’ve lived up to the potential we have in the squad,” Gressel said. “That’s on us. It doesn’t really matter who the coach is.”