A gif is worth a thousand words:
D.C. United went outside the box last winter to find Ben Olsen’s successor, and I’m going to argue – and I think a good chunk of the fanbase would argue – that the first year of the Hernan Losada era was a success in spite of its disappointing ending.
That success comes from two things:
- A lot of the young, high-upside players on the roster improved.
- They spent most of the year playing really attractive, really good soccer.
Formation and tactics
That good, attractive soccer was born of Losada’s Maximum Overdrive!! principles of play, which he melded pretty seamlessly to a 3-4-2-1 formation that got a bunch of players into spots where they could, and often did, control games, create chances and wreak all kinds of havoc.
Maximum Overdrive!! – which was coined by the guys at the Filibuster podcast and always needs two exclamation points, I insist – is exactly what it sounds like: a Red Bull-esque commitment to high pressing and playing forward as quickly as possible. As per Second Spectrum’s tracking data, D.C. were third overall in total pressures per game, fifth in high presses and third in possessions gained five seconds or less after applying pressure.
It was fun as hell and it worked, as they’re among the league leaders in goals (56) and xG (54.34).
They had a bunch of them, as befitting a team that played such an open, attacking system. A lot of those highlights came via right center back Andy Najar (more on him in a second) and right wingback Julian Gressel just eviscerating the left side of the opposing defense, attacking at pace and from angles that must be very hard for anyone to replicate in training.
If there’s one game that sums it up, though, it’s the 7-1 destruction of Toronto in July that cost Chris Armas, who had nearly been hired by D.C. instead of Losada, his job. Granted, the Reds were dead men walking that game, but we see listless teams take 3-0 or even 4-0 losses fairly frequently. 7-1? That’s a statement of intent, and an especially profound one with youngsters (Kevin Paredes & Griffin Yow), newcomers (Nigel Robertha) and veterans (Yamil Asad & Ola Kamara) all getting on the board.
HIGHLIGHTS: D.C. United vs. Toronto FC | July 03, 2021
It stayed mostly good after that for the next three months, but at no point did it get appreciably better than that particular moment. Though shouts to Kamara, the Golden Boot presented by Audi runner-up, for doing his damndest to drag this team over the line.
The start of the season was not great, as D.C. went 2-5-0 over the first month of action.
The end of the season was worse. D.C. played some of the best ball in the league throughout the summer, smashing the teams they should beat, going toe-to-toe with the best teams in the East and generally looking like a side that was gaining strength as the year went on. By the end of September they were solidly above the playoff spot and looked likely to stay there unless catastrophe hit.
Catastrophe hit, and then just kept hitting. October was a nightmare month as United went 1W-4L-1D, with virtually every one of those games being a six-pointer.
The obvious low point was the 6-0 loss at Yankee Stadium that was, as Losada said, over inside of 10 minutes.
The lesson: If you’re going to run all year on Maximum Overdrive!!, you’ve got to keep an eye on how much gas is in the tank.
Najar! He looked utterly washed playing as a right fullback in 2020 for LAFC after having spent years battling injuries in Belgium. When D.C. picked him up in the offseason it seemed like a smart “throw our original Homegrown star a bone and keep him around for his experience” move.
It was much more than that. Najar was delightfully effective as an attacking right center back in Losada’s 3-4-2-1 which – I badly need you to understand this – is not a position+role combination that had actually existed in MLS prior to Najar playing there.
But by June that was his spot, and that’s when he started doing stuff like this:
Armchair Analyst: Andy Najar skill comp
You see what I meant by “attacking from angles that must be very hard for anyone to replicate in training,” right? How do you mimic that on Thursday to prep D.C. on Saturday?
Najar was electric in a way that center backs, especially in a back five, are not supposed to be. And while he wasn’t great defensively, he certainly wasn’t bad.
Most important, though, is that he was healthy. He looked like he did half a decade ago when it seemed like he was on the verge of a move from Anderlecht to a Champions League team in La Liga or Serie A.
Injuries meant he never got that move, which is a shame. But he’s just 28, and if he stays healthy, it’d be wonderful to see him have a long, successful third act back home with the club that gave him his start.
It’s sadly ironic that Najar had his healthiest season in years, to the point that he should be top three in Comeback Player of the Year discussions, while so much of the rest of his teammates were shuttling on and off and back onto the injury list.
The only regular starters who didn’t miss significant time with fitness issues were Gressel and Venezuelan d-mid Junior Moreno (who missed significant time on international duty). Those are also the only two players on the team to top 2000 regular-season minutes, which is insane. Even clubs that got hammered by injuries – Seattle, Toronto, Dallas, Columbus, Miami, Orlando, Vancouver – had at least five guys top that mark.
Those injuries piled up and were a big part of why October was so miserable. Edison Flores, Yordy Reyna, Paul Arriola and eventually Paredes… that’s a lot of firepower to be without for the stretch run. The attrition rate on the backline was just as high.
I will let you decide for yourself if Maximum Overdrive!! led to this or not. What I will say is that after months of front-foot, dominant play, D.C. suddenly looked sluggish and worn down when autumn arrived, and once their press was broken they were easy meat for any team that could string three passes together.
Playing the most important games of the year without your best players has a high cost.
Five Players to Build Upon:
- Najar (RCB): If he stays healthy he is a unique and game-changing weapon. And, just from a neutral point of view, he’s fun as hell.
- Gressel (RWB): One of the best crosses of the ball the league’s ever seen, Gressel is a two-way asset and had natural chemistry with Najar.
- Arriola (RW/AM): In Arriola’s 20 starts they went 10-8-2 with a +12 goal differential. In the 14 (as of this writing) without him, they were 4-7-3 with a -9 goal differential. He’s irreplaceable.
- Paredes (LW/LWB): He’s like a bolt of lightning. The 18-year-old Homegrown is Brenden Aaronson-esque in how he’s always a step ahead of everyone around him in reading – and capitalizing upon – transition moments. Like Najar a decade ago, he will eventually be sold to a Champions League club.
- Brendan Hines-Ike (CB): For 1000 minutes Hines-Ike looked like a real solution for D.C. in the middle of that backline. If they can get him back (he was on loan from Belgium's KV Kortrijk) and get 2500 minutes out of him next year, that significantly increases their prospects.
D.C. don’t exactly sit at the big boys’ table when it comes to international signings, so I think it’s naive to say “they need to buy out Edison Flores and replace him with a high-level No. 10.” What’s more likely – and what could have a more widespread application given the teamwide injury issues – is they have to figure out how to do a better job of keeping their guys fit and on the field.
That obviously includes Flores, the Peruvian attacker who was one of Liga MX’s best players in 2019 and made so, so much sense as a target for any MLS team. But his two years with D.C. have provided just 2g/8a in a shade under 1900 minutes, and that ain’t great from the team’s only true DP.
Flores is under contract through 2024 and they need him to be available and, at the least, pretty good. They also need more of Arriola, and Steve Birnbaum, and Bill Hamid in goal, and Russell Canouse at d-mid and basically everyone else who missed time over the past two years. Putting resources toward that is a more important job this offseason than recruitment.