A week after he fired Hernán Losada six games into the MLS season, D.C. United co-owner Jason Levien still raves about his former coach’s energy, passion and creativity. Losada, he said, “changed the foundation and shook up our culture, which needed shaking up.”
But in his first public comments since the abrupt move — one that outraged long-standing fans who had embraced Losada’s transformative ideas since his arrival last year — Levien said this week that Losada also “cracked some eggs.”
On top of Losada’s fraying relationship with some players and the front office, United had stumbled on the field since last fall: a 2-4-1 finish in 2021 and a 2-4 start this year.
So when Dave Kasper, the team’s president of soccer operations, and General Manager Lucy Rushton recommended a coaching change, Levien said he and partner Stephen Kaplan agreed.
“We felt like we should be doing better,” Levien said. “A lot of an organization’s role with players is to inspire them to play their best. We felt like we weren’t getting that. Unfairly or not, sometimes that falls on the manager.”
Losada was fired last Wednesday, after the team returned home from a trip to Rochester, N.Y., for a U.S. Open Cup match. Chad Ashton, a D.C. assistant since 2007, was put in charge for the rest of the season, a 28-game gig that began with a 3-2 victory over the New England Revolution on Saturday at Audi Field.
D.C. United rides Taxi Fountas to win in first game since coaching change
Losada, who said he was “still in shock” immediately after the decision last week, has not responded to multiple requests for comment. “When I look back, I’m proud of the progress … achieved in less than 15 months, creating a professional environment and a competitive atmosphere,” he wrote Tuesday on Instagram.
In an interview Tuesday, Levien gushed about Losada’s qualities.
“He is immensely talented. He’s got great charisma,” Levien said. “I found him very inspiring and loved the conversations and interactions we had. Our organization is better for the time Hernán was here.”
But, Levien said, Losada’s demanding ways did not sit well with everyone.
“As much as I liked we were pushing guys hard,” Levien said, “we may have pushed them a little too hard.”
The physical demands resulted in a long list of injuries last season and a team that looked spent down the stretch; it missed the playoffs by one point. Even after changes to the support staff and a greater emphasis on offseason conditioning, the ailments continued this spring.
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From a mental standpoint, players said Losada’s methods sapped the joy from the game and he didn’t communicate well. On top of that, Levien said, “I don’t think you have a lot of joy when you’re losing more than you’re winning.”
Kasper said last week, “We were concerned with our direction.”
The decision to fire Losada was made so early in the campaign because, Levien said: “We didn’t want to do it in Game 20 when it was harder to make a change in terms of having a great season. We needed to do it earlier.”
But after just six matches — one of the quickest firings at the start of an MLS season — did Losada get a fair shake? United’s highest-paid acquisition, Greek attacker Taxi Fountas, had not even made his first start. (With Ashton in charge, Fountas recorded two goals and an assist in the first half Saturday.)
“I wrestle with that because circumstances could have been different and he could’ve gotten more of an opportunity,” Levien said. “But what I am looking for is the collective, holistic trajectory of the club. When the performances aren’t up to what we expect and we think there are areas where we can improve our culture, I need to support” the recommendation brought by Kasper and Rushton.
United’s confidence in Ashton helped alleviate concerns about firing Losada, Levien said. Ashton was the interim coach in late 2020 after Ben Olsen’s ouster, and though Ashton interviewed for the permanent job that winter, “we thought we needed a new voice and more of a change Chad could offer” at that time, Levien said.
With the changes United had in mind in 2021, Levien added, “I’m not sure if Chad had taken over for Ben we would’ve been able to implement that as rapidly.”
Levien said that United wants to continue Losada’s high-energy, high-pressure system with Ashton.
Ashton, Levien said, is also well suited to repair damage in the coach-player relationship and improve in-game strategy, such as closing out matches. In Losada’s last two MLS matches, United conceded Atlanta’s winning goal in second-half stoppage time and allowed Austin to score three times after the 80th minute for a 3-2 victory against 10-man D.C.
“I wouldn’t put [the firing] on one game, but if you took a 20-game perspective on how we were winning and losing games, that’s more fair,” Levien said. “You say: ‘Wait a minute. We don’t like where this is trending.’ And even though we were six games in, this group of players can be in the top echelon of the conference, not the bottom echelon.”
Losada did not ingratiate himself to his superiors by grumbling often about United’s modest spending habits compared with some other league clubs. Team officials asked him to tone it down, and he did. His comments, though, raised questions in the public about ownership’s ambitions.
“We’re not at Atlanta’s level of spending,” Levien said. “We’re going to be middle of the pack, but we have to stay in our lane in terms of our vision, which is strategic spending” and developing homegrown players.
The MLS Players Association has yet to post this year’s salaries, but United is generally in the lower tier. Teams are also measured by the amount they spend acquiring players from overseas.
Levien said United is in the market for a third designated player — the maximum allowed by MLS — to join Fountas and Peruvian attacker Edison Flores.
The Flores signing has been a bust: a club-record $5 million transfer fee paid to Mexican club Morelia in 2020 and a $1.6 million base salary for little output from the oft-injured player.
Levien, the face of the ownership group since 2012, took issue with claims the organization has not spent enough to keep up in the growing league.
“We’re not growing as fast as I would like, but if you look at the trajectory of the organization, it’s undeniable we’re growing,” Levien said, citing the opening of Audi Field in 2018, the launch of second-division Loudoun United, a new training center in Leesburg and increased staffing in the technical and academy departments.
He said he understands the frustration of the fans, who have not enjoyed a playoff victory in seven years, an appearance in the conference finals in 10 and a place in the MLS Cup in 18 — the last of United’s four titles over MLS’s first nine seasons.
The firing of a well-liked coach further inflamed the supporters.
The lack of success on the field, Levien said, “doesn’t sit well with me.”
“I want to spoil our fans again,” he said. “Our vision in doing that is to build a culture, a philosophy and an investment in our team that has sustained success. A lot of it is below the surface, but we think it’s going to build the foundation for us to have a renaissance going forward.”