Differences of opinion on the quality of the Black-and-Red’s roster and a last-place spot in the Eastern Conference standings amid an overall grim locker-room atmosphere were the driving factors, though. Now, interim boss Chad Ashton has been tasked with keeping the good aspects of the Losada era and ditching the bad.
“This isn't a decision we take lightly. It's not a decision that we made overnight,” general manager and head of technical recruitment and analysis Lucy Rushton told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “It's something we've been talking about and discussing for a little period, and it ultimately come to it where it was that we felt was the right time to make the change.
“We have a very good group of players. And I think we haven't been getting the best out of them. And I don't think performances have reflected the roster that we have,” she added before the New England Revolution visit Audi Field on Saturday evening (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+). “So I do think that we have a team that should be competing, at least in the top half of the Eastern Conference and pushing for playoffs and pushing for the top positions in the league. We should not be where we are in the league with the roster we have.”
That cuts sharply against several of Losada’s public statements in the first few months of the year, and generally his outlook for most of his tenure in D.C.
The Argentine was forthright in lobbying for the club to spend more on the squad and across the board in general, advocating for the acquisition of a third Designated Player and pointing to the expensive signings made at MLS counterparts like Toronto FC (Lorenzo Insigne) and Chicago Fire FC (Xherdan Shaqiri and Jairo Torres).
In February he said United needed “a third DP, one or two offensive pieces, goalkeeper and a No. 6, a defensive midfielder.” Speaking last month about D.C.’s first two opponents of 2022, Charlotte FC and FC Cincinnati, Losada said: “They are not candidates, maybe, for playoffs. So are we not candidates for playoffs, based on all the odds and all the different opinions of the people and also based on all the transfers that other clubs have been doing.”
Two Black-and-Red supporters’ groups have backed Losada in expressing their discontent with both the change and president of soccer operations and sporting director Dave Kasper in general. But at some point Losada’s approach started to grate on others within the club, and losing four straight games – three of them at home and the latest a stunning late collapse against Austin FC that turned a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 defeat – further eroded his position.
Meanwhile, though veterans Steve Birnbaum and Julian Gressel denied on Thursday that players objected to Losada’s punishing training regimen and his stringent focus on fitness, diet and body-fat composition, the vibes around the team were clearly not optimal.
“It wasn't easy at times and it was very demanding. So bringing the joy back and maybe loosening some of those restrictions will get guys to really enjoy coming to training more and more, and then really being on the same page within the group,” said Gressel, who also shared some revealing insights into the situation on the podcast he co-hosts with Chicago’s Fabian Herbers.
“Everybody was bought in and then – I think I've had that in every single locker room that I've been in with a new coach coming in – you’re kind of like, man, alright, let's go guys, we're in this, it's new, it's exciting. And then it over time, maybe it fades a little bit and maybe a coach makes certain decisions that certain players didn't like and all those types of things factor.”
Ashton, who has worked at United for 15 years across four different coaching regimes, aims to get the group smiling again without changing the high-tempo, high-pressing style installed by his predecessor.
“I want the guys to enjoy what they're doing. I want them to come to work and have fun and look at it as an opportunity, not as a job,” Ashton said during Thursday’s media availability from the United Performance Center in Leesburg, Virginia. “At times things were becoming a little difficult, just in feeling ‘have-to-ish’ rather than ‘get-to-ish’ and I think I want to get them in the mindset of ‘hey, I get to go out there and do this. This is my living.’
“Because I do think happy people perform with just more zest for life. So that's the headspace I want to get them into. … This team truly believes that they're a playoff team, without question.”
Ashton’s term in charge has not been defined. But Rushton and Kasper underline the depth of the front office’s respect for the former University of Denver head coach, who sounds likely to be given the rest of the season to prove his quality.
“Chad has paid his dues and his experience and knowledge of our league and club culture are top,” Kasper told MLSsoccer.com. “His man-management ability and ability to prepare for and manage games are his biggest strengths.”
Notably, Ashton sought to have one-on-one conversations with every single member of the squad and successfully convinced Losada’s countryman and first assistant Nicolas Frutos to stay on, maintaining continuity and a charismatic presence who has won respect from players and colleagues. Former D.C. and NYCFC defender Fred Brillant has also joined the staff after starting his coaching career at Loudoun United, their USL Championship second team, earlier this year.
And Losada’s very public requests for reinforcements may still be met. D.C. reportedly paid $400,000 to ensure new DP attacker Taxi Fountas’ early arrival from Rapid Vienna and Rushton sees more to come from DP Edison Flores and Toluca loanee Michael Estrada.
“We've got a DP spot open. So for us that's the position that we have been looking at, and that we'll continue to look at going forward,” said Rushton. “As with most DPs in this league, that's probably more likely going to be an attacking piece. But as to the exact nature of that attacking piece, we have different lines that we’re kind of going down and different avenues we’re exploring.
“Because, again, Taxi’s just arrived. Estrada hasn't been in the team that long. Eddie is coming back in and it's kind of like, 'How do those pieces all fit in together? And what is the next piece that we need then to complement them?' So I think this team needs a bit of time to gel together and see where we need to go off the back of that.”