D.C. United head coach Hernan Losada turned a few heads in a press conference last week when he lamented, in some detail, his dissatisfaction with the fitness levels of his players when they reported for their first preseason under their new leader.
“I didn’t expect to have the team so unfit,” declared the 38-year-old Argentine, who espouses an aggressive high-pressing philosophy in the mold of his countrymen Matias Almeyda and Marcelo Bielsa. “If we 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.”
A few days later I had the chance to ask a veteran sports science specialist about Losada’s remarks, and got an interesting response.
“Everyone likes to say that they’re the hardest-working or fittest team in the league. To be the fittest team in the league you have to work really, really smart AND really hard, and also recruit the right athletes,” said the specialist. “Being the fittest team in the league has a huge recruitment element as well.”
And that in a nutshell is what makes the arrival of new D.C. general manager Lucy Rushton — beyond the obviously historic nature of just the second woman hired as a GM in MLS’s 26 years of existence — such a notable development in the Black-and-Red’s 2021 metamorphosis.
Losada is attempting to implement a fundamental shift in United’s identity after Ben Olsen’s decade at the helm. D.C. worked on a shoestring budget for much of the Olsen era, bargain-hunting on the international market and acquiring players that had fallen out of favor or were otherwise undervalued at other domestic clubs.
At times this worked wonders. Longtime GM/technical director Dave Kasper, who has now been elevated to the role of president of soccer operations and sporting director, proved adept at digging up value and working the levers of the league’s salary-budget system, and Olsen was an effective motivator and man-manager. But that meant that those teams’ tactics and identity usually had to be adjusted to fit what was available, rather than the other way around.
Now they can work along a more methodical pathway, one in which Losada’s concepts and priorities can shape the squad at his disposal with the help of Rushton’s data-driven guidance and Kasper’s deal-making nous. And rest assured, recasting United as hard-charging ball hawks will sooner or later require some roster refreshment. Because — as mentioned above — as intensely as his players train and as carefully as they may count calories, there are limits on how much he can change what he’s inherited.
If you need an example, look up I-95 to D.C.’s Atlantic Cup rivals the New York Red Bulls. Over the past half-decade or so, RBNY have transformed themselves from a big-market vehicle for superstar names like Thierry Henry to a youthful high-press collective where philosophy almost always trumps personality and prominent standouts (Dax McCarty, Tyler Adams, Tim Parker et al) are routinely sold or traded at or near peak market value. Something similar could be said of the Philadelphia Union and San Jose Earthquakes, two other distinctly “system teams” in MLS.
At this point even a casual observer has a clear idea of what a Red Bulls player looks like, and I expect that D.C. will aim to move in a similar direction. Rushton’s savvy skill set figures to be a huge weapon in that regard, with her algorithmic approach heavily influencing the explosively entertaining rosters that put Atlanta United on the map right from their birth.
“Data gives us direction,” she told FIFA.com last year. “I’ve seen numerous times where the data doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but it actually asks them. We’ll see something in the data and it will make us go and watch the footage to investigate why the data was showing that. It helps us analyze and go in depth that little bit more, and into areas we didn’t first notice.”
Player recruitment probably won’t be her only purview, given how much her expertise can also augment other areas like fitness and load management, opposition scouting and performance evaluation. But it’s likely to be a massive priority as D.C. delve into the details of their reinvention.