The 2021 MLS regular season is officially over, culminating on Decision Day marking the end of the road for 13 MLS clubs ahead of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. No more ambiguity: All focus shifts to the offseason and what's next.
Here, we'll be covering three questions for every team moving forward. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.
He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.
In their first year of the post-Ben Olsen era, D.C. United looked distinctly different.
Head coach Hernan Losada arrived, instilled a deliberate pressing/transition/high-energy system, almost always out of a 3-4-2-1 formation. They had a defined style and, after a slow start, things started to come together. They appeared to be on the brink of qualification for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.
But as the season drew closer to Decision Day, D.C. couldn't keep up the pace. Key injuries caught up to them (again) and they fell just short of the playoff line, finishing in eighth place, one point off the New York Red Bulls in seventh.
They head into the offseason full-force.
D.C. United pushed the pedal to the floor with an absolute lead foot all season long. Losada introduced himself to the national stage by criticizing his players' fitness levels in preseason and showing no hesitation in voicing other painfully honest comments as the season started.
“I didn’t expect to have the team so unfit,” Losada said as preseason closed.
It's his ethos, his vision. It's why he was hired.
“If you want to compete with teams that are going to be better than us, teams that have more budget and better players than us, we need to be the fittest team [in] the league, and we still need time to be that,” Losada added.
The team eventually began peaking by the end of the summer, both in fitness and form. Injuries played a big role all year long, but that was the closest they got to "full strength." They were entertaining as hell, grinding opponents down and routinely playing high-scoring, end-to-end games. It was fun but it proved to be fleeting.
Injuries hurt them throughout the season. Take a few of these availability stats:
- DP Edison Flores started 11 games (playing less than 1,000 minutes)
- DP Paul Arriola started 19 games
- D.C. United started exactly one game all season with all four of Flores, Arriola, Bill Hamid and Steven Birnbaum (perhaps their four foundational players)
- D.C. United started exactly one game all season with all four of Flores, Arriola, Ola Kamara and Julian Gressel (their four best attackers)
- Only one player (Gressel) started 30 games
- Only two players (Gressel and Junior Moreno) started 25 games
That lack of continuity in having their best players available cost them. But were the injury woes incredibly unlucky or a symptom of Losada's all-out vision?
After D.C.'s critical loss to Columbus at the end of October that severely harmed their playoff chances, Losada aired some frustrations in the postgame press conference about their roster spend, saying many, many clubs spend "millions" more than D.C., and those are the clubs that should feel the pressure.
"I hope I'm listened to," Losada responded when asked if he thought the budget was going to increase this offseason.
That leads to ... will there be change at the top of the roster?
Flores, D.C.'s club-record signing, has been largely injured since he arrived in 2020. He has started just 22 of DCU's 57 games over that time, with just 2g/8a (in 29 total appearances). It hasn't quite gone to plan so far.
If the club decides he's not a great fit for Losada's tactics, or if Flores eyes a return to Mexico, D.C. would have a DP spot open. Arriola currently occupies another, but the US men's national team winger has admirers both abroad and domestically.
There's a very realistic scenario in which D.C. could be shopping for one or two DPs. If both stay, United can still sign a Young DP for that third slot (or a senior DP if they opt to use one or fewer U22 Initiative slots).
Flores and Arriola would be two if they stay; Hamid, Birnbaum and Julian Gressel as well; Andy Najar enjoyed a renaissance season after more than a few injury-plagued campaigns, but he'll be due for a new contract; Russell Canouse, Moreno and Joseph Mora have been key starters for this club; Ola Kamara almost won the Golden Boot presented by Audi this year (thanks in no small part to a bunch of penalties, admittedly); homegrowns Kevin Paredes, Moses Nyeman and Griffin Yow all have bright futures and have broken into the rotation to varying degrees.
Those 13 players wouldn't be a bad start!
Further identifying and acquiring players that best fit Losada's system this winter will give the Black-and-Red even further solid footing for 2022. MLS announcing that there will be far fewer midweek games next year should help, too. This year's campaign kicked off near the end of April due to the COVID-19 pandemic; next year will start at the end of February, meaning a less compressed schedule ahead of the FIFA World Cup.