Every time Ben Olsen steps onto the practice field, he knows he can still play. No doubt about it.
While his gait remains hampered by the scarred ankles that ultimately cut short his playing career, the former D.C. United midfielder still showcases the crisp passing and aggressive tackling that helped make him one of the most celebrated players in club history, even bagging the occasional highlight-reel goal as well.
“Then I wake up the next morning,” Olsen said with a wry smile, “and have trouble walking down the stairs.”
It’s not conventional coaching, for sure. Then again, it’s safe to say convention isn’t what the United front office expected out of the 34-year-old when it made him the youngest coach in MLS after the organization’s tumultuous 2010 campaign.
Although United came back from a franchise-worst 6-20-4 mark to go 9-13-12 in Olsen’s first full season, the team still missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. As he puts it, “I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
It’s an on-the-job education that will resume Saturday, when United host Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium to kick off their season.
“It’s a pretty consuming job, but it’s also very enjoyable in the way I’m still in the locker room, still a part of the team,” Olsen said. “There’s really nothing that substitutes that, the feeling of working together and getting results. I’d like to have that feeling a lot more this year.”
A special relationship
Olsen debuted for United in 1998 as a tireless, floppy-haired winger out of the University of Virginia, earning Rookie of the Year honors. Fierce on the field with humbled charisma off it, he quickly became a fan favorite. Once the need for countless ankle surgeries largely robbed him of his signature speed, Olsen reinvented himself as a gritty defensive midfielder, leaning on his fiery leadership, positional savvy and on-the-ball smarts.
When all was said and done, the physically unassuming 5-foot-8 player from Middletown, Pa., won two MLS Cups, in 1999 and 2004, claiming the Most Valuable Player trophy for the first triumph. Internationally, he represented the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
“As a player, he got accepted real quick for all the qualities that I think now make him a great coach,” said Thomas Rongen, United’s coach from 1999 to 2001. “He was honest, hard-working, had great respect toward the game and opponents and teammates, and a very keen understanding of how to lead by example.”
After his retirement in November 2009, Olsen became an assistant under new coach Curt Onalfo. Following a 3-12-3 start, however, Onalfo was dismissed the subsequent August. Looking to invigorate a frustrated fan base, United gave the reins to the ever-popular Olsen on an interim basis, just eight months after he hung up his boots.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Olsen said of the transition to a coaching career. “When I came on board [as an assistant], my vision was of a couple years of really learning the craft. That wasn’t my path.”
While the results only marginally improved, it was clear in the team’s energy that Olsen’s heart had rubbed off on his players. At season’s end, he was handed the full-time gig. For all the statistics and accolades Olsen compiled in 12 years patrolling the D.C. midfield, it was the intangibles that made him a cult hero among the United faithful — or, as they have now declared themselves, “Olsen’s Army” — and a fitting candidate to right the club’s ship.
“He knows how to make an atmosphere where guys want to fight and challenge themselves and challenge their teammates,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “You saw that as a player, and now you see it as a coach.”
‘Ben Olsen’s team’
As a coach not long removed from the game, Olsen always is open to dialogue with his players. But as forward Josh Wolff notes, “He has a picture of what he wants to see.”
It’s an image that has slowly come into focus. Since Olsen took over, he has been a driving force behind the team’s roster overhaul. Now, just three players — Hamid, center back Dejan Jakovic and midfielder Chris Pontius — remain from Olsen’s playing days.
“He’s the most passionate guy for the club,” said midfielder-forward Dwayne De Rosario, who was named league MVP after being acquired halfway through last season. “He really wants this club to be successful, and you can see that in the work he’s put in making sure he has those tools.”
In cleaning house, Olsen has cut ties with onetime teammates he had developed strong bonds with. This past offseason, United declined the options on veterans Santino Quaranta, Clyde Simms, Devon McTavish and Marc Burch, all of whom spent at least three years playing alongside Olsen.
They were conversations the young coach did not look forward to. He said his parting words with Quaranta, who played 10 seasons with D.C. and in 2008 confided in Olsen while recovering from a crippling drug addiction, were particularly trying.
“It was very, very difficult,” Olsen acknowledged. “But I always said I have to do what I believe is right for this club. I could be wrong. I have to go down this path with things I believe and do what’s right and not let my emotions sway me.”
In shaping his vision for 2012, Olsen identified experience and “bite” — attributes the squad has lacked since he stepped away from the field — as priorities. With a slew of acquisitions, including seasoned defenders Robbie Russell and Emiliano Dudar, pesky midfielder Danny Cruz, and decorated striker Hamdi Salihi, the club believes it has addressed those concerns.
“There are a lot of options that get thrown your way, and he’s very clear and he’s very disciplined in terms of the players that he wants,” general manager Dave Kasper said. “He’s very picky, very demanding, which is good.”
While the turbulent situation Olsen inherited has granted him the benefit of the doubt thus far, it would appear that grace period is ending. United are overdue for a postseason run, and he knows it as well as anybody.
“There’s more clarity in how he’s delivering himself,” said Wolff, Olsen’s Olympic and World Cup teammate. “He’s been a winner his whole life, and obviously this club hasn’t made the playoffs. That’s something that weighs on him heavily and on this organization. I don’t think he’s going to settle for some of the things maybe he settled for last year.”
One can assume Bruce Arena knows Olsen as well as any coach, seeing as the American soccer legend coached him at every significant stop of the player’s career, from Virginia to D.C. to the U.S. national team.
So did Arena, now leading the MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy, see the seeds of a coach in his longtime pupil?
“I would have bet my life he would not have ended up as a coach,” said Arena, who explained, “I say that in a good way because he has so many qualities — he’s intelligent, he’s got a great personality — that I think a lot of doors can open for Ben, inside our sport and outside it.”
Olsen, though, wasn’t quite so optimistic about where life would have taken him if coaching didn’t work out, straining for an answer before concluding, “I’d probably be playing on the indoor soccer circuit somewhere, thrashing my ankles around, playing only in games, never training.”
He made the remark with his typical knowing laugh, but it seemed as if he was only half-joking. Soccer is just in his DNA. Yet Olsen, a resident of the District’s Shaw neighborhood, is quick to point out life beyond the pitch is plenty rewarding, especially when it comes to raising his 3-year-old daughter, Ruby, and 1-year-old son, Oscar.
“He’s very hands-on, as you can imagine,” said Olsen’s wife, Megan. “He’s the fun dad at the park, running around and going down the slide, because you know Ben obviously wants to play. He loves the kids, the kids love him, and they miss him a lot while he’s away. But he talks to them on the phone every night or on FaceTime. When he gets home, he’s extra helpful.”
It’s not an easy balance to strike. The rigors of coaching can wear down even the cheeriest of personas, and Olsen said managing his first preseason shortly after Oscar’s birth last winter was at times overwhelming.
“It worked on me pretty good,” he recalled. “Sleep deprivation was pretty much a common theme. But I’ve really enjoyed being a father and all that comes with it, the highs and lows.”
He now boasts a full year of experience, as a coach and father of two. For Olsen, it feels as if life’s once-scattered pieces have nicely fallen into place, leaving him better prepared to tackle a promising coaching career and enjoy everything fatherhood has to offer.
“I’m in a better rhythm this year,” Olsen said, “both on and off the field.”