“Sometimes one or two in the morning,” D.C. United’s new coach remembered. “I was a huge fan of the competitiveness, the spectacle, the discipline — a lot of things to put into practice in any team but also into life.”
While the NBA was a far-off galaxy, unattainable for a teenager of modest height and three-point range, soccer was within reach.
“Every time we have free time, when there is a moment to play, at the park, at the club, at school,” Losada said, “you breathe and live the game.”
Thus began a journey that carried him to Argentina’s top division, to a 12-year career in Europe, then the fast track to coaching in Belgium. In January, he became United’s surprise choice to fill its vacancy and, at 38, MLS’s youngest boss.
United, which opened training camp Monday, considered more than 30 candidates for a job Ben Olsen held for 10 years before his firing in October. The plan was to hire a domestic-based coach, someone familiar with MLS’s unusual rules for player acquisitions, which sometimes trip up coaches from overseas. But after negotiations with two such targets fizzled, the organization took a hard look abroad.
Losada had retired as a player just 2½ years before and served as head coach of Belgian club Beerschot for 15 months. He had visited the United States once.
Nonetheless, “When Hernán’s name came across the desk, we were like, ‘Wow, this guy is really intriguing,’ ” General Manager Dave Kasper said. “We had been through a long process. We had spoken to a lot of people. We knew what we were looking for. Once we met Hernán [over Zoom meetings], we were blown away.”
With a two-year contract plus a club-held option, Losada is tasked with rejuvenating a four-time MLS champion that missed the playoffs last year, has not won a postseason match since 2015 and last reached the final 17 years ago.
He has also been asked to implement his progressive tactics and stylish soccer — the brand he exhibited in three playing stints with Beerschot and as the coach of that Antwerp-based club, which last year celebrated promotion to Belgium’s first division.
“I want to see intensity — intensity when we have the ball, intensity when we don’t have the ball,” Losada said of his hopes for United. “That is what modern football is about: intensity until the very last minute. I’m a very demanding coach with that.”
‘Everything was invested in soccer’
Losada’s early influences came in the Argentine capital, where soccer washes over the population.
Few U.S. cities have multiple teams in the same pro sports league. Greater Buenos Aires is responsible for 13 of the 26 clubs in the country’s top soccer division this season and 18 of 35 in the second flight. Stadiums decorate digital maps, and neighborhoods sport club colors.
The biggest rivalry, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate, is one of the world’s fiercest. Second in the city is Independiente vs. Racing, major clubs on the city’s southern edge that play in 50,000-plus capacity stadiums separated by a few hundred yards. Supporters torment one another with insulting billboards along roads.
The maternal side of Losada’s family supports Independiente, his paternal side Racing. He and his brother backed Racing. His father worked for an insurance company; his mother was a homemaker.
“No luxury, but thanks to my father and my mother, we always had enough to live okay,” he said. There was one luxury: private English lessons because, he said, “they knew someday I would need this language” in global travels.
Losada’s heroes were the Argentine “enganches,” or playmakers: Riquelme, River Plate’s Pablo Aimar and Marcelo Gallardo, and Racing’s Rubén Capria.
And also Jordan and the Bulls.
As a kid, he embraced soccer, tennis, basketball and taekwondo at the neighborhood recreation center and at Parque Leonardo Pereyra. Soccer won out.
“Everything was invested in soccer,” Losada said. “Instead of being on the phone or on PlayStation, like most of this generation is doing, I was spending that time investing in playing in the street, making a goal with two rocks or two trees and playing soccer, working on my technique, working on my left foot, hitting a ball against a wall, practicing my timing for heading.”
His first youth affiliation was with Barracas Central, a small club whose pro team is now competing in the second division. As his talent developed, he moved to Independiente and, at 21, made his pro debut.
Two years later, a move to Universidad de Chile in Santiago lasted only six months. Seeking fresh opportunities, he and his father sent highlight DVDs to clubs around the world. Beerschot responded.
“The moment I arrived, I saw Antwerp, I said, ‘Here is where I want to be,’ ” Losada said. Except for one year with Dutch side Heerenveen, Losada played all of his European seasons in Belgium.
“It sounds weird coming from someone from Argentina, but after living so many years in the same place,” he said, “it felt like my real home.”
United defender Frédéric Brillant was Losada’s teammate at Beerschot in 2012-13.
“As a player, he was a leader,” said Brillant, who is just three years younger than Losada. “As a coach, he is the same. He comes in with a philosophy and good ideas. He wants to bring his own thing here. He wants to do very good things.”
‘A young coach on the rise’
Losada began preparing for a coaching career several years before he retired, enrolling in European pro licensing courses. At times, he received permission to skip training to attend class in Brussels, 30 miles south.
“When I start to apply everything I was learning on the field as a soccer player, I started to think more as a coach than as a player,” he said. “I knew when I stopped playing, I wanted to jump into that new world. I don’t need a break; I just want to start right away.”
Losada first guided Beerschot’s under-21 squad and became a first-team assistant with the second-division outfit. In October 2019, nine matches into the season, he was appointed head coach.
In the second half of the season, Beerschot was the best team in the league, earning a place in the promotion playoffs.
After Beerschot defeated Leuven in the first leg, the coronavirus pandemic delayed the second match for five months. Two days before it was played, the Belgian association decided to expand the first division, so both Beerschot and Leuven were promoted.
“When he took over, it was very unlikely Beerschot would become champions,” said Koen Frans, who writes about Beerschot for Gazet van Antwerpen. “But he did it. He made the impossible possible.”
That achievement added to Losada’s local popularity. He was among Beerschot’s best players in his first tour (2006-08) and his second (2011-13). Bankruptcy forced the club to restart in the lower leagues, and in 2015 he returned to help it gain promotion to the third division, then the second.
With Losada coaching, the club took the final step.
“One of the icons in more than 100 years of Beerschot history,” Frans said.
Newly promoted teams typically struggle, but with Losada’s proactive tactics taking hold last fall, Beerschot began 9-4-1. Although a cold spell followed, United took interest in his ascent and methods.
“His track record wasn’t very long, but he had gotten out of the gates quickly,” Kasper said. “He was a young coach on the rise.”
Despite a deep history in Antwerp, Losada said he was enticed by a fresh challenge in a city he had never visited. The sides closed the deal quickly, and after waiting a few weeks for a work visa, he began to settle into his new home.
“I don’t want to put my head in Argentina or Belgium anymore,” he said. “I want to be fully focused on the city where I live, to get to know the city and feel part of it. When you feel part of the place you live, you start feeling at home much quicker. Here I have a very good feeling.”