Troy Lesesne takes road less traveled to DC United: “We have a lot of work to do” | MLSSoccer.com
From one of the most recognizable footballers on the planet over the last few decades to an understated leader whose own playing experience topped out with the USL Championship’s Charleston Battery, the Black-and-Red have pivoted from style to substance with their latest hire.
Just ask Lesesne himself.
“I’m very self-aware,” D.C.’s new manager told MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s official announcement. “And I don’t think that I am checking the conventional boxes of the archetype that’s an MLS hire, which is probably a tenured MLS head coach, an international coaching profile, high-profile player.
“I don’t check one of those boxes. The box that I check is 20 years of coaching experience at every single level. And so I think as a player, you have to respect the work that I put in, and the authenticity that I bring to every interaction. I’m going to be myself and use my experience that I’ve gained over the past 20 years to make us the best product that we can be and bring out the best in these players.”
In 2022, Rooney’s splashy summer return to the U.S. capital drew global headlines and added intrigue to an otherwise woeful season, a shortcut to relevance for a proud club fallen on hard times. Yet the English legend couldn’t quite get his D.C. project off the runway, finishing 14W-26L-13D across 15 months in charge and missing out on the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs in his only full season. He struggled to produce consistent results or a distinctive philosophical identity despite significant investments in the squad.
Lesesne, conversely, took the long way to this point.
The South Carolina native painstakingly worked his way up the ladder from part-time coach at his alma mater, the College of Charleston, in 2005 to gigs with the Battery and the Charlotte Independence – putting in work at both stops as a liaison for development affiliations with Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Colorado Rapids, respectively – before finally earning his first head coaching job at New Mexico United as that club began life in the USL Championship in 2019.
“The work we did [with New Mexico United], I think was really special in terms of progressing to the quarterfinals of the 2019 Open Cup in our first year – that was so important to give that organization and myself credibility,” he recalled of his time in Albuquerque. “Beyond the results, we connected with that community and the community’s values so much.”
NMU qualified for the playoffs in two of Lesesne’s three seasons in charge. That stat, however, doesn’t begin to describe the trying circumstances, particularly in 2020. Following the lengthy shutdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s strict public health policies necessitated the team play the entire remainder of their schedule away from their Isotopes Park home.
New Mexico persevered, posting a winning record and reaching the conference semifinals before falling to rivals El Paso Locomotive via a penalty shootout. Lesesne also helped build the fledgling club’s academy system and foster the relationships that helped NMU post some of their league’s highest average attendance numbers since their arrival.
His work in the desert Southwest drew the attention of Gerhard Struber, who brought Lesesne on to his staff at the New York Red Bulls two years ago. Struber then gave his career a boost of a different sort when he parted ways with RBNY last May, with a long shadow cast by the controversy that erupted around star striker Dante Vanzeir’s use of racist language towards the San Jose Earthquakes’ Jeremy Ebobisse in an April 8 match.
“The COVID year was insane. We played every match on the road, only team in the US to do that,” said Lesesne. “We ended up making the semifinals of the USL playoffs. Then being hired by Red Bull, Gerhard giving me a chance, and just being able to prove myself at the MLS level was really what I was pushing for my whole coaching career. It just took me longer, I think, because my path wasn’t part of that traditional path.”
A new opportunity
RBNY languished in last place in the Eastern Conference when Lesesne took the helm. By season’s end, they’d mounted respectable runs in the US Open Cup and Leagues Cup tournaments, and reached the playoffs, extending their streak of postseason qualifications to 14 years and beating Charlotte FC in their Wild Card match before giving Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati a good scare in Round One.
Even with a 14W-10L-8D overall record and a tangible lifting of both spirits and performances under Lesesne, the Red Bulls turned back towards Germany this winter to hire Bundesliga veteran Sandro Schwarz.
Did Lesesne get a fair shake? No hard feelings, he says.
“Yeah, 100 percent. I mean, the fair shake to me is an opportunity, right?” he said on Tuesday. “I was under no illusions that it was my job if we made the playoffs. With that said, I think as the season progressed, and we continued to improve, clearly I was hopeful of being able to build with that project. But I wasn’t surprised at the end of the season that they went in a different direction. I think that they had plans that they wanted to put in place, and I respect that. But I definitely was given a fair opportunity. And I think it allowed me to showcase myself in a way that teams like D.C. United would be interested.”
With an Atlantic Cup derby that stretches back to MLS’s inaugural season in 1996, RBNY and D.C. are two of the league’s oldest rivals, a past that in some contexts might engender suspicion among hardcore supporters. Lesesne prefers to approach that as an advantage rather than a challenge, noting he’s quite familiar with United’s roster and history after facing them so often with the Red Bulls.
“It’s a roster that has way more to it than the results have shown,” he said of United’s first team. “In terms of experienced veterans, let me say that in Christian Benteke and Mateusz Klich, I think these two players as DPs – any team in the league would love to have either of these two players as their DPs. So I’m really excited to work with players that are of that level and of that experience. But then again, the experienced veterans in Steve Birnbaum and Russell Canouse, Tyler Miller and Alex Bono, Pedro Santos, there’s a really great part of the roster that has won in MLS.”
Putting the pieces together
Lesesne goes on to reel off another list, citing the likes of Ted Ku-DiPietro, Jackson Hopkins, Kristian Fletcher and Gabriel Pirani, emphasizing that D.C.’s youngsters will be given opportunities to shine – a pressing big-picture priority for a club based in one of the most talent-rich youth soccer regions in the United States.
That extends to a renewed connection – “we’re probably going to expand that in a big way,” Lesesne predicted – with Loudoun United, the nearby USL Championship side that was once D.C.’s second team and is now a looser affiliate, with plans for an MLS NEXT Pro team to be founded at a proposed new soccer facility in Baltimore in the coming years.
“My experience at Red Bulls will help allow me to have the mindset that you want to give young players an opportunity,” he said. “So it takes away a little bit of that fear factor of the risk involved with playing a young player, because they can absolutely do the job if they’re ready. And there’s players that are young players that are ready right now. They showed that last year.”
And while pressing is a key tactic in his managerial toolbox, his is a more nuanced interpretation than the brutally direct style of the Red Bulls’ peak ‘energy-drink soccer.’
“Pressing, it’s a label that is absolutely put on anyone that’s worked in the Red Bull world, and for good reasons,” Lesesne explained. “I wouldn’t limit how you would describe me as a coach by just saying ‘he’s a high-pressing coach.’ High pressing is usually mislabeled as chasing the ball over the field, whereas you saw the Red Bull team get to the end of the 2023 season with different lines of confrontation, as well as being better with the ball.
“I pride myself on, throughout the majority of my coaching career prior to Red Bull, as being a coach probably that has more expertise with the ball than against the ball,” he added, noting that he plans for D.C. to be both “aggressive” and “creative” under his game model. “But I really received a tremendous education against the ball with Red Bull. And I like that, I like making the opponent uncomfortable.”
Whether or not the average fan knows much about Lesesne, his reputation is growing within MLS. With the 40-year-old head coach senior only to NYCFC’s Nick Cushing among MLS managers, and the person who hired him, new D.C. general manager Ally Mackay, just 37, United are now led by one of the youngest technical staffs in the league.
That’s a leading indicator of the scale of the Black-and-Red’s offseason reset. And a sign, perhaps, of a longer-term mentality at the capital club, where the growing distance between the glory days of decades past and their recent chronic underachievement grates on a fatigued fanbase eager for signs of renewal.
“You cannot talk about D.C. United without respecting the tradition, the history of the club,” said Lesesne, who expects ownership to continue investing in the roster while also aware that coaxing improvement out of the current group is one of his core tasks. “But I think there’s also an understanding that over the last five years, we haven’t come close to matching what the organization started with in the early days, really in the first 10 years. That’s our goal, is to get back to that level of performance, to be able to compete for trophies.
“A big part of that, in speaking to the owners and Ally, is how are we going to reintegrate, reconnect this organization, and have full alignment from top down? That’s something that I feel like is a really strong part of my leadership, is how to connect people, how to bring people together,” he continued. “We have a lot of work to do also to reinvest in our community and in our supporters, because these supporters have, again, tasted success at a really high level but haven’t felt that and haven’t seen that in a long time. So we’re all very much aligned about how we’re going to go and do that.”