WASHINGTON – The two coaches, both top-tier professionals in their own playing days, rarely stopped moving as the game unfolded in front of them at Audi Field.
Raphael Wicky would drop into his bucket seat to ponder, perhaps confer with assistant Frank Klopas. But before long he’d pop back up to urge on his Chicago Fire FC team – at times shouting encouragement, other times screaming for certain movements or decisions, underlining his points with an assortment of hand signals. A litany of ‘talk’ signs to Chicago’s leaky backline to demand more explicit communication. A convergence of index fingers to request a tighter tactical structure.
In between, there were pained reactions to the two Fire scoring chances that clanged off the woodwork, and two more parried away by goalkeeper Jon Kempin, who made his D.C. United debut. By the final whistle, the former Swiss international’s vest had been discarded, a downcast look as he walked onto the pitch to console his players after another loss, their fourth in five games during the young season.
A few yards to Wicky’s left, D.C.'s Hernan Losada was slightly less didactic, but even more animated as he paced his own technical area. The Argentine’s pressing system is more kinetic than Wicky’s possession-centric philosophy and his sideline demeanor reflected it, rallying his shorthanded side to keep pushing high, keep working.
Like the 3,935 socially-distanced fans in attendance, Losada’s emotions spiked and ebbed with every missed chance, every promising movement that broke down in the final third. He exulted when the final whistle sounded on his team’s hard-earned 1-0 win, capping a three-game losing skid and stabilizing the trajectory of his fledgling renovation project in the U.S. capital.
This was a meeting of two “young Turks” in the league’s coaching ranks, both charismatic imports with well-developed ideas about how to play the game and cosmopolitan, multilingual backgrounds to connect with their diverse rosters. Both are working to revive big-market clubs with bygone glories and a marked air of unrealized potential, facing a sense of urgency that belied this early juncture in the campaign. Wicky, now in his second year, missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs a season ago. Losada, only 39, is tasked with rejuvenating the Black-and-Red upon arriving from Belgian side Beerschot.
“Of course I wanted to start the game with a real [No.] 9, but it was not possible,” said Losada, who has remained defiant about his high-intensity training methods despite a crippling injury crisis. “The forwards that we had on the bench were not fit enough to start, so I needed to find a rabbit out of a hat. I don’t know how you call it, but you know what I mean.”
On Thursday that meant fielding Adrien Perez – expected to be a reserve this year, but now key amid all the absences – and Edison Flores as a small, scuttling, skillful front line in his 3-5-2 formation. The gambit paid off with Flores’ goal, his first in a heretofore disappointing stint in D.C., and a man-of-the-match display from the clever Perez.
“We were in a little drought, and we just needed to find ways to get out of it,” said Perez of D.C.'s first win since Week 1, and their first clean sheet under Losada. “So this victory was extremely important.”
It’s often said that MLS’ playoff structure forgives slow starters, that the intensity doesn’t really crank up until summertime. But with two embattled squads sensing real danger of slipping off the early pace in the Eastern Conference, Thursday’s affair didn’t feel much like May.
The Fire met a morale-sapping sense of deja vu, the latest installment in their galling habit of untimely defensive breakdowns despite encouraging work in other areas of the pitch. It might have stung even worse for their supporters in the wake of MLSPA salary information, released earlier in the day, showing that the Windy Side outfit carry one of the league's highest wage bills.
“Yeah, I have no argument against that,” Wicky conceded in his postgame press conference when the idea of “drastic changes” to his winless group was brought up. “It's very frustrating to lose again. But I think tonight we should have walked away with a point.
“This game, right now, immediately after the game – and I will watch it again – gives me a lot of hope. There were a lot of promising things, obviously offensively, we created a lot. I think we played some good football and from that we build. From that, I'm 100% sure we can build.”
Wicky, who handed one teenage homegrown (Brian Gutierrez) his first MLS start and debuted another (Javier Casas) off the bench, has to maintain credibility and buy-in from his side despite an extended 10-game winless slump that dates back to last October. There could also be a nagging sense of fragility, even among his top talents.
“I think last year we showed some good stretches of how we want to play. This year we haven’t shown it too much, but the style is still the same,” Fabian Herbers, an energetic substitute who rang a late header off Kempin’s crossbar, said when asked whether the squad still believes in Wicky’s ideas and methods.
“We want to play out of the back and we want to be a team that has a lot of possession and up front we want to press and attack and win the ball in the opposing half," Herbers continued. "Does it always work that way? No, because the opponent knows how to play soccer as well, obviously. But I feel like in stretches we do show it and I don't have a doubt that anybody in the team is not buying into Rapha’s strategy, so I fully trust him and fully believe in what he's trying to implement here in the club.”
It was the best answer that Herbers could offer; perhaps the question itself said more about the Fire’s predicament.
Wins are the most precious currency available to coaches in situations like Wicky’s and Losada’s, who must win (and keep) hearts and minds, both in the locker room and in the stands and executive suites. While some around MLS may have the luxury of easing into their 2021 slate, in D.C. and Chicago they’ll keep clinging onto each week’s results for the foreseeable future.