The San Jose Earthquakes will take on one of two Eastern Conference opponents in 2021 on Saturday, when they host D.C. United at PayPal Park. Ahead of the showdown, I checked in with Jason Anderson of SB Nation’s DMV-area soccer site Black and Red United. Many thanks to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions!
Center Line Soccer asks Black and Red United:
1. It’s a new era for D.C. United, who have a new coach for the first time in about a decade. How’s it going so far and can you sketch a basic outline of how the team plays?
The Hernán Losada era still feels very new, and for the vast majority of fans, we really only have two data points to go on in terms of the actual performances. I would say things are overall going pretty well, especially in the context that Losada has walked into in terms of the number of players who lost much of preseason due to surgery for old injuries. It would not be overstating it to say that Losada has charmed fans, and he’s very clear in his philosophy as well as how far United has to go to really embody it on the field.
As far as what that style translates to, United is a high-pressing team first and foremost. They want to use their pressure on the ball to be any given game’s defining trait, and from there they want to attack quickly and with numbers. They’re direct, but not a long-ball team; it’s more based on the idea of looking for the forward pass whenever possible, and making off-ball runs at full speed. They’ll likely set up in a 3-4-2-1, and Losada has stressed that he wants this style to be something they put into practice home or away.
2. Goals have been at a premium for D.C. of late. Have they addressed that issue and who is expected to be the top scoring option for them this season?
United has tried to address last year’s woeful scoring record in a few different ways. Losada is obviously the biggest move in that department, and came over from Beerschot with his team atop the Belgian league in terms of goals scored.
They’ve also made some moves on the roster. Last year, the team felt very short of options up front, and as a result moved to add four new forwards. Nigel Robertha, a TAM acquisition from Levski Sofia, is the most likely starter among them, and with Ola Kamara’s availability doubtful, he may get his first MLS start over Erik Sorga tomorrow night. Losada seems to have taken a shine to Adrien Perez as well, while first-round pick Kimarni Smith scored twice in preseason and has consistently looked ready to contribute as well.
The question of which of these players is supposed to lead the team in scoring is a tough one. Kamara has the most proven pedigree, but has struggled to stay healthy since returning to MLS and may not be adept enough at pressing opponents to thrive under Losada. Robertha was tearing it up in Bulgaria, but does being great in the 23rd best league in Europe translate to MLS success? It could be that Edison Flores emerges as an all-around goals and assists threat, but we’re still waiting for his first “wow” kind of performance in a United shirt.
3. United seem to vacillate between having solid seasons and very poor seasons. Coming off a poor season that led to a real change in the offseason, what are the real expectations for the club this season, in your opinion?
The DCU rollercoaster is real. There’s a perspective out there that United has been completely horrible for ten straight years, but it’s really that they have seasons where they looked legit (2012, 2014, 2016, 2018) and also seasons where they were hopeless (2013, 2017, 2020). The middling seasons, like 2019, were still decent from a points perspective, but the reason no one remembers them is that the team was a chore to watch.
I think United fans have accepted Losada’s verdict that it’s going to take a couple months to really get the stylistic approach down. He’s asked for patience, and for good reason: the team is missing some of its most important players due to injury, and the tactical transition involved here is really night and day. So, expectations are at this point pretty realistic. I think the correct way to gauge this team throughout the spring is to look at how well they’re implementing Losada’s system.
2021 feels like a preparation year, in other words. Showing a serious new identity is more important than whether D.C. finishes 7th or 8th in the East. United certainly has the ability to get into the playoffs if most of their best players can produce (this roster, when healthy, is quite deep), but if the process of becoming a true Losada team takes until, say, August, they might run out of time.
You can read my answers to Jason’s questions at Black and Red United.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.