Why D.C. United fired Hernán Losada after just 15 months in charge: ‘It was about the whole package’

Chad Ashton kept things simple on Wednesday morning in the first address of his second stint as D.C. United interim head coach.

“I want you to come in and enjoy it,” Ashton told D.C.’s players, according to a team source who was in attendance, who, like other sources spoken to for this piece, was granted anonymity in order to speak freely about Losada’s dismissal. “The joy and happiness hasn’t been there sometimes. With the strict eating, with all the weigh-ins — we forgot about having fun.”

It’s a basic message, one no doubt heard more often on recreational youth teams than in the halls of United’s training complex in Loudoun County, Va. But after more than a year of what sources described as high-pressure, fast-paced and at times overbearing management from former head coach Hernán Losada, a little injection of joy probably won’t hurt D.C.

D.C. fired Losada on Wednesday morning, roughly 12 hours after the 39-year-old Argentine led the team to a 3-0 win against NISA side Flower City Union in Rochester, N.Y. in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday night and only 15 months after he was hired from Belgian side Beerschot. After sticking with previous head coach Ben Olsen for more than 10 years before dismissing him late in the 2020 campaign, United are once again working through a midseason coaching change.

“Fans see 90 minutes of what we do, but we’re in here as a group every day for hours and hours,” center back and captain Steve Birnbaum told reporters on Thursday. “We play a game of soccer — we started playing it to enjoy it. It’s a big message that’s being sent right now, to enjoy our time together and enjoy training. We play our best when we’re having fun.”

As they did after firing Olsen, United have once more turned to Ashton as their interim replacement. The 54-year-old, first brought to D.C. as an assistant coach in 2007, will coach the club for the remainder of 2021. He’s charged with improving results (D.C. is currently last in the Eastern Conference and is riding a four-game losing streak in MLS), and with repairing a locker room that struggled to adapt from the famously chill Olsen to the exacting demands of Losada, who did not respond to messages sent to him by The Athletic on Wednesday and Thursday.

“These guys went from probably the most relaxed coach in the history of the league to one of the strictest, and it was brutal for some of them,” said another team source. “It was always going to get ugly after three or four losses in a row.”

Ahead of Losada’s introductory press conference in January 2021, D.C. sporting director Dave Kasper shared the pitch he’d made to his new manager: He could make himself United’s next great Argentine playmaker, following Lucho Acosta, Cristian Gómez and current River Plate head coach Marcelo Gallardo. Losada, Kasper said, would just do it from the touchline.

“Hernán wasn’t aware that Marcelo spent a year here,” Kasper said with a chuckle.

D.C.’s path to Losada was winding and protracted. Over the three-and-a-half months that preceded his hiring, United interviewed a host of candidates — current Chicago Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson, current Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda and Manchester City assistant coach Rodolfo Borrell among them. D.C. very nearly came to terms with Chris Armas, who went on to coach at Toronto FC and is currently an assistant at Manchester United, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement. Losada, in many ways, came out of nowhere, thrusting himself upon United at an opportune moment.

“Had he been there from day one,” Kasper said in 2021, “the process would’ve gone quicker because he has everything we’ve been looking for.”

Losada was also the first Hispanic head coach in the club’s history, something many at the club hoped would help United — a club with a storied history of Latino playmakers — reconnect with the District’s sizable crop of people with Honduran and Salvadoran heritage, many of whom were among the club’s most fervent early supporters before losing interest over the years.


Losada with New England Revolution and former D.C. United head coach Bruce Arena (Tony Quinn / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The club wasted no time offering up the usual talking points many MLS clubs do upon signing a new coach: Forward-thinking. Attack-oriented. A modern manager. The phrases were like red meat to the club’s fans, many of whom had grown tired of the club’s lack of style during Olsen’s decade-plus tenure as head coach. To some, Olsen was the club’s only link to its storied past, a familiar face amongst an ever-rotating cast of characters; to others, he was a symbol of what many perceived to be United’s lack of ambition.

Olsen was by all accounts an excellent man-manager, but was sometimes viewed as being tactically deficient and stuck in his ways, hamstrung by a club that refused to spend. Losada, on the other hand, sported a short but exciting resume. In a little over a year at the helm of Beerschot, he had earned a reputation as an all-or-nothing coach prone to throwing numbers forward. Within a week of taking the D.C. job, he offered up another cliche: “I’d rather win a game 5-4 than 1-0.”

“(D.C. United) has been working with one method, in one way, for the last ten, 15, 20 years,” Losada told The Athletic prior to the start of his first season. “And now all of the sudden this new ‘book’ arrives, a new philosophy, new ideas. I am not the owner of those ideas, by the way — this is just the way all professional teams in Europe work. So I’m just bringing that way of working in European competition to D.C. United.”

Losada, who was the youngest coach in the league until 2022 expansion club Charlotte FC hired Miguel Ángel Ramírez last summer, wasted no time endearing himself to United’s fans. And United seemed willing enough to change at first, perhaps eager to alter the widely-held perception the club has held as an “MLS 1.0” outfit.

But Losada’s honeymoon didn’t last; his relationship with the club’s front office grew complicated almost immediately. Within weeks of arriving, the Argentine was calling on United, long one of MLS’s most frugal clubs and without a third designated player for the entirety of his tenure, to spend more on players, on training staff, on nearly everything. Before a 2021 preseason game at Philadelphia, Losada pushed for a nicer team bus to ferry his players to and from the match.

Losada’s demands were even greater on the pitch. On arrival, he publicly expressed disbelief at the fitness of his new charges and ran brutal training sessions, required players to adhere to a strict diet and regularly weigh-in at the team facility. Losada frequently cited fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa as one of his chief coaching influences, and it was clearly visible in his obsession with fitness, and making weight in particular.

“If you’re three pounds overweight, you’d get fined,” said a team source. “If you were a minute late to something one time, you’re fined. Guys couldn’t be themselves and express themselves how they wanted to. Multiple times, we were shaking our heads. We would be exhausted and he would still run us into the ground — he didn’t really listen to players — that communication and openness was never there.”

Players eventually began grumbling about Losada’s training sessions, first internally and eventually in conversations with the press, something which rankled the Argentine, who responded in kind.

“I read somewhere that there were people complaining about the way we train,” he told The Athletic in May 2021. “About how much we train. We train for an hour a day. Never twice a day, never for 90 or 120 minutes.”


(Geoff Burke / USA TODAY Sports)

Concerns about Losada’s ability to communicate effectively with his players and with other United employees were echoed by several other sources within and outside of the organization. Multiple sources said that Losada would often go days or weeks without speaking to some of his players, often making use of his assistants to have difficult conversations addressing their concerns about training methods.

D.C. have long struggled with soft tissue injuries, something Losada also sought to address. His mentality was simple — if players trained harder, worked harder in rehab and increased their overall fitness, injuries would become less frequent. Yet the Argentine’s increased workloads seemed to worsen to United’s injury troubles; in 2021, the club lost more man matches to injury than any club in the past 15 years, often struggling to assemble a full gameday roster of 20 players for games in the season’s later stages. Players were often pushed beyond comfort not only in training but during rehab, according to sources.

Hours after Losada was fired, United midfielder Julian Gressel went on his podcast to discuss some of the issues in the locker room and the positives and negatives of his former coach. Gressel said he “didn’t think we were at this point” for Losada to be fired, said he was “happy” to have had him as a coach but also discussed some of the issues with his methods — including suggesting the high number of injuries D.C. suffered last year could be attributed to Losada’s training methods.

“He demanded a lot from us, and that was in every facet of life, essentially,” Gressel said.

Gressel elaborated in a news conference with reporters on Thursday, saying that Losada’s methods, specifically the weigh-ins, “made me better. It showed me what a true professional has to look at. Many of the young guys will look back at this and how it made things better. … He pushed me to new limits, whether it’s physically or tactically.”

Some players thrived under Losada. Gressel himself experienced a bit of a renaissance after a slow start in D.C. Andy Najar, who had struggled with his own fitness and injury issues over the past few years in Belgium and MLS, was a revelation for United in 2021 and had continued his strong form in the current campaign. But during the club’s 3-2 loss to Austin, the Honduran suffered a hamstring strain and will now miss the next six weeks as he recovers.

The discontent with Losada’s approach eventually festered at every level, sources said, but the coach was not willing to change his methods. One team source said that even people close to Losada could not convince him to compromise.

“He wasn’t willing to modify,” another team source said. “It was all high-octane all the time with everything.”

Notably, one of Losada’s closest confidantes on staff, assistant coach Nico Frutos, a fellow Argentine who left a job in Belgium to join United last year, is remaining with D.C. to work as an assistant under Ashton.

“I know it’s difficult for him, maybe even more so than for Hernán because there’s an internal struggle of loyalty,” Ashton said when asked about Frutos on Thursday. “I felt it when Ben left. It’s a really traumatizing thing, especially when it’s someone you’re really close with. And on top of that, he brought a family here from Belgium and that’s scary for the family. I am really happy that he’s staying.”

Losada’s arduous methods can work — as long as the manager keeps getting good results. For his first few months in charge, Losada did just that, successfully navigating that ever-growing list of injuries to enter the last month of the 2021 regular season in third-place in the East. D.C. couldn’t hang on in the final weeks, however, collecting just seven points from their final seven matches — including a 6-0 loss to NYCFC that remains the worst in club history — to fall all the way to eighth in the final standings, missing the playoffs by one point.

Decision-makers at United felt they’d equipped Losada with a playoff roster. They didn’t have the big-money stars like Atlanta or LAFC, but then D.C. have never been that club. United did have two designated players in U.S. international Paul Arriola and Peruvian national team midfielder Edison Flores, a core of MLS-experienced veterans, including Gressel, Birnbaum, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and forward Ola Kamara, and a handful of promising homegrowns led by Kevin Paredes and Moses Nyeman.

“We had enough to make the playoffs last year,” one team source said. “He was a very young coach, he made a lot of mistakes (in D.C.) and I hope he learns from it.”

This winter, United moved two of their top players from 2021. Paredes was sold to German Bundesliga side Wolfsburg for a club-record $7.35 million fee in January and Arriola was traded to FC Dallas for an MLS-record amount of allocation money later that month after a discussed move to Mexican giants Club América couldn’t quite get finalized. Arriola actually pushed the club to move him, in large part, said multiple sources, due to friction with Losada.

D.C. added 10 new players so far this season, though most have filled depth roles rather than starting jobs. United did sign some attacking pieces, including Ecuadorian national team forward Michael Estrada on loan from Toluca, but the biggest addition, designated player Taxi Fountas, only made his debut on Saturday after joining from Rapid Vienna. D.C. also re-signed homegrown player Chris Durkin from Belgian club Sint-Truidense, though Durkin has made only two appearances since signing in late March.

Some sources connected to United expressed surprise that Losada was moved along before being given a chance to operate with the club’s latest additions, Fountas in particular.

“How do you not give the guy a few games with the one piece you’ve spent any money on?” said one source.


(Vincent Carchietta / USA TODAY Sports)

After opening the 2022 season with back-to-back wins, D.C. dropped four straight, with three of those coming at home. On Saturday, a 10-man United team blew a two-goal lead in the final 10 minutes against Austin, allowing three goals in a 3-2 loss. It was a shocking collapse, even for an underperforming side.

Ahead of the weekend, sources said, the head coach and front office had agreed on a plan to leave some of the club’s most important players, including Birnbaum, who struggled with injuries in 2020 and 2021, in D.C. for the midweek Open Cup clash that would be played on turf, against a third-division side and in freezing weather in Rochester. Losada, who sources said was furious after the capitulation against Austin, wanted to change plans after the defeat, but the front office, led by Kasper, pushed back on him.

Sources said Losada fought Kasper and the D.C. front office on the subject, telling them that he was the coach and he alone should have the right to pick which players took the field and which didn’t, but he ultimately lost out. Birnbaum, Gressel and Hamid didn’t travel to upstate New York for Wednesday’s game. The confrontation ended up being one of the final straws for D.C. in regards to Losada, whose firing was perhaps more about his ability to manage relationships within the club than it was about results.

“This wasn’t about the first six games,” said one team source. “It was about the whole package.”

Another source added that Losada, who said goodbye to the team in an emotional meeting at the training facility on Thursday morning, made a potentially fatal mistake with his repeated public criticisms of how much owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien invest in the team.

“That’s never the way to get rich guys to spend,” the source said. “Owners don’t really care if the coach hates the GM, but once the coach says something mean about the owner, the owner usually isn’t a big fan.”

In the end, D.C. liked Losada’s tactics, but didn’t like his management style and method of interacting with the players and the organization. One team source said that the club lacks ambition in many ways. Losada was pushing to change that, but he perhaps pushed a little bit too hard, too fast for United’s liking.

“(That he was fired) this early, lots of guys were surprised,” said one team source. “But the club has been waiting to do this. The barrel was full and that was the final straw, what happened with Steve (Birnbaum). Dave (Kasper) has wanted to fire him for a long time, Hernán was perceived to have been a dick in the media and internally, as well.

“The run of games that we’ve had makes it look as more of a performance thing than what it really was. If he was a better communicator — that’s probably why Ben was there so long — if (Hernán) was a better man-manager, he’d probably still be here.”

(Photo: Scott Taetsch / USA TODAY Sports)

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