Nashville SC

DC United preview: Q&A with Sarah Kallassy of Switch the Pitch

DC photography features slim pickins, so here’s defender Joseph Mora/Courtesy Major League Soccer

While I once considered myself a DC United fan, I certainly don’t follow the team closely at this stage. I caught up with someone who does for the latest intel. Sarah Kallassy is the Editor-in-Chief Switch the Pitch, an outlet devoted to providing opportunities for female representation in soccer media. She is also the outlet’s official DC United reporter, and was gracious enough to fill me in on DC.

Tim Sullivan: There’s been a lot of talk around the league about a quirky management style out of new head coach Hernán Losada. How does that show up on the pitch? Does his fitness obsession see him sending his guys 100 MPH for all 90 minutes, or does it manifest in other ways?

Sarah Kallassy: “Hernán Losada kind of reminds me of a real-world version of Ted Lasso. From day one, he came to the club excited, positive, and ready to build a collective culture in the locker room and community. It’s been very interesting to watch the progress of D.C. United over the first half of the season. 

“I know the team had a bit of a rocky start, but we have to remember just how long the off-season was with COVID-19. Fitness was always going to need to be addressed, regardless of the system any coach wanted to institute. While some might see Losada as being obsessed with fitness, he really has just raised the standards and shown this team what they are capable of. We have always had tremendously talented players, now there is a system and culture that complements their strengths in a new way

“Since starting his tenure with the club, Losada has emphasized the ideology of ‘collective over individual,’ and the idea of ‘vamos por más:’ always going for more. These two thoughts have become guiding themes both on and off the pitch. While Losada is focused on good results for the team, he has made it explicitly clear that he is interested in winning the ‘right way.’ Losada doesn’t want unearned wins, or wins on technicalities. We frequently see him praise the team, even in draws or losses when the players have put forth spectacular effort.

“Of significant importance is Losada’s commitment – and the commitment of the coaching staff – to support players and have trust and confidence in them in good times and bad. Losada has repeatedly stated that he trusts the players and will always support them, especially when things aren’t going well. To me, this mentality is powerful and creates the very positive culture we now see at D.C. United. Players are working incredibly hard but they are bought in, and it shows, both in results and in how they speak about the team.”

TS: Ola Kamara is just one goal off the Golden Boot lead more than halfway through the season. What’s allowed him to get there? With DC not scoring a ton overall, does he need more help in attack?

SK: “’D.C. not scoring a ton?’ Tim. Are we watching the same team? [TS: They’re seventh in the league despite having a guy in the Golden Boot race! That’s very good; it’s not a ton]

“All joking aside, Kamara has been supported by Losada’s system in a way that has really left him unfettered to score those goals. He’s now the most-scoring player in terms of goals to minutes played in the league. I think he’s scoring a goal about every 62 minutes? If we look back to Kamara’s first seasons in MLS with Columbus, he was scoring 16, 18 goals per season. He’s on track to match or exceed his best goal scoring record during this 2021 season, and I’m here for it!

“Compared with the past few D.C. United seasons, we are seeing a plethora of chances created. The most exciting aspect of D.C.’s newfound creativity, is that the chances really are coming from the team, not just one or two players. I mean, we had that July 3 match against Toronto FC where each of SEVEN goals were scored by different players. The collective soccer IQ is incredible. Players like Andy Najar, Julian Gressel, Paul Arriola… the list just goes on … they’re creating chances left and right for their teammates. We’ve seen how Kamara benefits from good service, especially inside the 18-yard box. With the high press Losada has instituted, now there is ample service, it’s always just a matter of time before Kamara finds the net.”

TS: Bill Hamid has had horrible injury luck this year. Who has stepped in to replace him, and how has the performance gone between the pipes?

SK: “It’s always a shame to see a player injured, first and foremost on a human level. Bill Hamid’s injuries are especially upsetting because he’s an outstanding player in his prime, moving up the MLS rankings for all time clean sheets (currently climbing up the top ten) and really making his mark on the game. It’s just not an opportune time career-wise for him to be facing these challenges, and I’m hoping his recovery is swift. 

“Fortunately, D.C. United has two outstanding goalkeepers in John Kempin and Chris Seitz who are more than capable of holding the fort and grinding out excellent results. Kempin has really been a stand out these past few matches, his save percentage is sitting at about 60% and we can expect that to improve over the coming matches.  In the beginning of the season we had a brief look at what he was capable of between the sticks and his performance was very promising. I’m personally excited to see him develop and come into his own under Losada’s system.”

TS: How has the backline performed in front of the keepers? Has Julian Gressel been as solid defensively as he is productive in attack?

SK: “The past few matches in particular, we have really seen the backline perform well, they’ve really stepped up to support Kempin. As the players adjust again to his style between the sticks, I think we will see an even stronger defense. 

“Julian Gressel is one of the most productive players on the pitch for D.C. United, his work rate is absolutely incredible. He seems to be absolutely everywhere and is near the top of the league in assists. Gressel’s fitness makes him able to press and really run down players on defense too. We’ve seen some very recent examples of his speed as he’s run down opponents and saved the day in nail biting situations. During the most recent match with CF Montreal, Gressel was able to distract Sanusi Ibrahim enough to cause him to miss a shot at a wide open net.”

TS: Do you have a feel for how the game will play out (including a final score if you’re comfortable guessing one)?

SK: “Nashville SC has been playing well, and they’re also pulling a lot of draws as they kick their defense up against tough opponents. D.C. are unbeaten in five though, and really the rising team in the East to watch out for. I’m superstitious about guessing final scores, but, I will say that this will be a close match. It’s going to take a lot of D.C.’s energy and press to break down Nashville’s defense, and given the three match week, we will have to see how much Hernán Losada decides to keep his foot on the gas.”

Many, many thanks to Sarah for her expertise. Make sure to follow her on social media, and check out Switch the Pitch to find her work and support an outlet with an important cause!

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