Hernan Losada wasn’t searching for a job in North America.
The Argentine manager had plenty on his plate heading into 2021, guiding Beerschot through their first season back in the Belgian top flight after leading them to promotion from the second division last season. It was an achievement he first vowed to reach while playing for his longtime club, which crashed into the provincial leagues due to bankruptcy in 2013, forcing them to climb all the way back up the pyramid.
But when his agent alerted him to a lingering job opening at D.C. United earlier this month, the 38-year-old decided that fate was telling him to shift his outlook.
“Opportunities don’t come whatever you want. They just come, and the moment they come, then it's up to you to make a decision,” Losada told MLSsoccer.com in a video conversation from his Belgian home Tuesday morning, one day after being unveiled as D.C.’s new head coach. “And I made a decision and I didn't think twice.”
His new post sat vacant for months last fall as the Black-and-Red mulled over a long list of options for the successor to Ben Olsen’s decade in charge. After wowing D.C.’s executives and ownership over several promising interviews, Losada – “seen by many as the next big thing in Belgian football,” in the words of one outlet last month – moved from curious to hired in barely two weeks.
“I see this decision actually as a step forward in my career and I can always go back to Europe in case it's needed. Everyone knows me here,” he explained.
“I have to say from the first minutes, I really clicked with the board, with the owners, with the philosophy, way of thinking – very open-minded and ready for a change. And I'm a young coach, but a lot of experience as a player. In my short experience as a coach, 16 months, I had a lot of success. So I really look forward to this experience and I hope I can help make D.C. United better.”
D.C. can thank an unlikely figure for piquing Losada’s interest in an MLS move: Jelle Van Damme, his teammate at Anderlecht a decade ago and an LA Galaxy defender from 2016-17. Van Damme’s positive experiences led Losada to visit him in Southern California to view the country's growing soccer culture himself.
“That opened my eyes,” Losada explained. “When I saw the infrastructure, the dedication, the organization of the competition, I was really impressed. And for me it was always a dream to become a coach for a Major League Soccer team.”
Words like that from a charismatic young coach with ambition, comfort in four languages (and counting), a voracious tactical mind, extensive UEFA coaching certifications and high-level playing experience? It’s a sign of changing times and excitement for United supporters, who’ll likely be thrilled to hear Losada's top priorities when he arrives in the U.S. capital.
“I would like to start with playing as vertical as possible,” he revealed. “Based on the games I saw, you can see that the moment D.C United recovers the ball, most of the time they looked to play lateral or backwards. And I do believe that the moment you play vertical, especially after the transition, when you recover the ball, you can exploit the disorganization of the opposition.
“Of course you have to provide offensive solutions to the way you’re recovering the ball. But that's the first blueprint I would like to set in my team, to set that mentality and that principle of playing forward the moment we recover the ball.”
Losada worked under legends like Cesar Menotti and Oscar Ruggeri as he climbed the ranks at Independiente early in his playing days. As you may have heard by now, he's incorporated the ideas of Marcelo Bielsa into his own philosophy – though he emphasizes that his influences are many. They range from his homeland to lessons absorbed from the Dutch, French and German ideas that percolate in Belgium, where he got Beerschot generally punching above their weight, reaching mid-table in their first year back in the Jupiler Pro League.
“I think in football, everything is there – to see and to choose and to try,” said Losada. “And then it's up to me and up to every coach to pick up those principles that you find interesting and to make them your own.
“I like the dynamic and the energy that Bielsa inspires in his teams, but I also like the structure and defense organization of [Diego] Simeone. So, I think I’m somewhere in between. I'm a very enthusiastic and high-energy coach, with positive methods I try to motivate my players to get the best out of them. And when you see the teams of Simeone, of Bielsa, you see a lot of passion in their teams and that's definitely what I will try to communicate from day one.”
His Beerschot side showed structure and aggression both with and against the ball, often using a 3-5-2 shape and high pressing to discomfit the opposition. Having coached their Under-21 squad before earning promotion to the first-team staff, he’s familiar with the balance between individual development and collective cohesion.
“Apart from all the tactical and soccer principles, to create the group,” he said, “I give attention to all the players – the player who plays every weekend, but also the players who sometimes are falling next to the selection. Everyone needs to feel involved, everyone is important. And I think that's my blueprint for the first weeks, to create the group that goes through the wall in good and bad moments, and to give the same attention to player No. 1 but also to player 25.”
He sounds particularly eager to utilize D.C.’s promising crop of Homegrowns, whose progress was a silver lining in the Black-and-Red’s painful 2020.
“I do believe that in hard circumstances and in hard moments there’s space for opportunity, and that opportunity came for the young guys [last season],” he noted.
“My experience with the Under-21s here in Belgium was amazing and I had a good connection with the young guys, maybe due to the fact that I'm a young coach, 38 years old. I stopped with my own career not such a long time ago – it was in May 2019 – so I understand perfectly this new generation and the way they connect, the way they communicate,” he added. “I’m an open coach and I know you have to approach them in a different way than 10 or 20 years ago. Now players have another mentality; this new generation needs a lot of confidence, of positive coaching in the individual approach and in their personality.”
Tasked with resuscitating a proud club that finished third from bottom in the overall MLS standings last season, Losada faces a tall task and steep learning curve upon arrival in Washington. But he cautions that his journey as a coach began long before he hung up his playing boots.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve been taking my notes, things that I would do in the future when I become a coach,” he explained. “Many people think that I am only 15 months as a coach, that I don't have experience enough, but I've been playing as a professional in high[-level] leagues for 12, 13 years, and that experience as a player, I don't think you can find in books or in theory. And I tried to do that in practice, in every training, every day with my group.”