The busy offseason Loudoun United experienced with a change in its primary ownership has given the team a sense of freedom in thought and evolution. Where the team started well in its first few games last season, they regressed to the median over the course of 2022. This year the team has had a similar start, but three of their first four games have been against teams who appeared in the 2022 USL Championship playoffs, including defending champions San Antonio FC and Western Conference Finalists Colorado Springs. A third opponent, Memphis 901 FC finished close behind Tampa Bay for first place. While the team finds themselves in a 1-2-1 record, they have given themselves a strong barometer.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” coach Ryan Martin said after a recent practice. “When you look at the game, we’ve dominated in most capacities, created a number of really good looks. When you put a new group together to be able to create the amount of quality chances we’ve done, it’s a good start for our games against some really good competition. It’s been a tough four games, (but) it’s been a really good barometer of where we are. We have work to do in terms of finishing the final action, we need to be a little bit tighter defensively, (but) we feel like we’re in a good place.”
Zach Ryan is the team’s co-captain and has missed two of the four games due to a red card suspension, but he has the same sense of optimism. Speaking before the team’s second round U.S. Open Cup win over North Carolina FC, he said, “Looking at the last two fixtures specifically, I think the first half of the Tulsa game and the entire match with Colorado, we had some really strong performances, and managed to generate a lot of chances. I’d honestly say that the Colorado performance was one of our most complete games of the year. It sucks to be out, and I wish I could have played a role in those games, but it’s promising to see the team continue to improve even though the points aren’t going our way.”
“I think we’re in a good spot, I think our points don’t resemble how the team has been playing,” Koa Santos said prior to the Open Cup game. “It was a bummer to miss Zach for two games but I think when we’re fully healthy, we’re a pretty damn good team. After we played the Switchbacks and just talking to some of their guys, they said we were the best team we faced.”
Kalil El-Medkhar has been particularly snakebit thus far, with a goal disallowed to a questionable offside call in Week 1 and a certain headed goal saved point blank in Week 4, but he continues to be optimistic both on micro and macro levels. “I think overall everyone is frustrated with some of the results. But we’ve seen that we can move the ball, we can possess the ball, and we can get chances against some of the best teams in the League like San Antonio and Colorado (Springs). So I think we’re all hopeful that the goals will come and the results will come pretty soon.
El-Medkhar is a Delaware native and a former Philadelphia Union academy player whose rights were traded to FC Dallas in 2021. After two years with FCD’s side North Texas, he’s enjoying the homecoming of sorts. “It’s really good. Being able to have my family at the games, it’s really important. It was tough being away from them in Texas for two years and in Kentucky for four before that. So it’s almost kind of weird to be this close to home, but I love it, it’s nice.”
Martin tends to bring local players in (or back) to the fold for their comfort, but notices the change in dynamic compared to previous years. “The mentality and character of this group has a lot of really good individual people that are collectively bought into the goal of getting better and helping the team win games,” he said after practice. “For us, if something happens or doesn’t go right, (the mentality) is to just step up and make the next play better. And ‘how can I help the guy next to me, can I help the guy (if) he made a mistake to fix it?’ And we’re in a 34-game season plus the Open Cup, so there’s a lot of soccer left and we just have to get better from game to game and if we do that, we’ll be where we need to be at the end.”
The team is also aware of the injuries the squad has experienced after four games. Midfielder Alex Nagy suffered a torn ACL and winger Kwame Awuah an achilles injury in preseason (Awuah’s was a week before the opening game in North Carolina), and Week 3 saw defender Cole Turner suffer a torn meniscus that shelves him until the summer. The team is aware of the setbacks and knows what to expect of themselves and their teammates.
“We’ve had a lot of guys just get unlucky this preseason so far and the first couple games of the season, so the onus on the guys who are still healthy to step up,” Ryan said. “It’s next man up, to contribute, play well and make sure you’re ready to contribute week in and week out.
“Yeah, it’s next man up, and we knew going into it, we’d have a smaller squad, and for us, it is can the next guy step up,” Martin said. “We thought Bryce (Washington) did very well when he came in for Cole. We felt coming in the season we had three quality starting center backs anyway so when he got his chance, he stepped up. We’ve had three big injuries which are frustrating and unfortunate, but it’s next man up and our strength is our collective.”
Loudoun hosts Birmingham Legion tomorrow at Segra Field at 6pm.