Midfield Legend Ben Olsen Transitions to Interim Coach at Troubled D.C. United
Every sports team, even the most storied and successful, hits rock bottom. In 2010, it is D.C. United's turn. It is a franchise that's won so many trophies that it prints the word 'Tradition' on its jerseys even though it's been around for only 15 years. But this season, the word 'Laughingstock' would be more appropriate. D.C.'s 3-14-3 record is the worst (by quite a bit) in MLS, and the club has managed to score only 13 goals in 20 league games. Its best player is a 17-year-old rookie, Andy Najar, and its new coach, Curt Onalfo, was fired at the beginning of this month.
"We're all hurting," Ben Olsen told FanHouse.
Olsen, all 5-feet-8 of him, embodies that tradition. During his 12 year career, the wiry and tenacious midfielder willed himself to a litany of personal accolades and the 2006 World Cup while helping United capture a slew of domestic and international honors. His combination of skill, grit and soul endeared him to the RFK Stadium faithful like no player in any MLS market, and there was no question when ankle injuries forced his retirement last November that he would take a spot on the United bench.
"That was one of his strengths, being very knowledgeable and smart towards the game and figuring the game out," long-time teammate Santino Quaranta told this site in the nation's capital. "And the good part about that is he knows how to get guys. He lights a fire."
It was that quality, that fire, toward which a desperate front office turned a couple of weeks ago when it terminated coach Curt Onalfo. The season was basically lost, and that point, President and CEO Kevin Payne said his goal simply was to "see who really wants to be here. Who wants to be at D.C. United ... We want to figure out who's committed to this club and this market and this organization."
Who better to administer that test than Olsen? "He has defined what United is all about," GM Dave Kasper said when Olsen retired. That quality superseded his obvious lack of coaching experience. Wins would be nice, but the truth is that right now, D.C. must simply hope to avoid implosion while Payne launches the search for a permanent manager. Payne told FanHouse that he will begin calling potential candidates in the "next week or two" and that when Olsen returns to his assistant's role next season, he'll be richer for the experience.
"I've always thought that Ben would be a head coach some day. But I really do believe it takes a while ... I just think to have longevity in that job, you have to have a basis and foundation for it before you take it on," Payne said. "I think Ben will be a very good coach someday. I want to make sure he has every opportunity to succeed when it's is time. So we're not going to saddle him with expectations for this year or for next year."
Olsen may not have pressure from above, but he surely feels it internally. You don't accomplish what he accomplished on the field without demanding excellence from yourself, without acting as your own harshest critic.
"I assess my job every day. I assess myself on player relations, how I do with players, how I deal with training sessions and ultimately your results on the weekend," he said. "Of course I put a lot of pressure on myself. Maybe a ltitle too much at times. But this is who I am and maybe in a lot of ways that's why I'm in that spot."
The biggest surprise, he said, is how "thought consuming" the job already has become. When Olsen was playing he looked forward to leaving the game behind when he left training each day. Now, there is no time off.
"I didn't realize how intense it is, and not necessarily the work, but the brain. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, my mind's racing. I'm thinking, because there are so many little details. Whether it's dealing with trainers or staff or lineups or training sessions the next day, or speaking to the team, to certain individuals, there is so much going on and there are so many moving parts to this thing. My mind has never been mobbed like this throughout the day," he said.
Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was famous in Washington for spending several nights a week on his office sofa. He won three Super Bowls.
"I understand that now," Olsen said when RFK Stadium's most famous coach was referenced. "I understand how after 10 years of this, coaches say 'You know, I got a family I haven't seen.' But this is the job. This is all part of the learning process I'm going through."
That learning process isn't as difficult as you might think. Quaranta joked that Olsen was flummoxed by the two-sided, reversible dry-erase board in the United locker room, but that otherwise, the 33-year-old was in his element.
"He's a leader, naturally. He was a coach on the field. He's our captain in the locker room. Him and Jaime (Moreno). He's guided us a lot," Quaranta said.
"This isn't like going from being an accountant to being a head coach," Olsen insisted. "I've had a little bit of on-the-job training. In the coaching sense it was very short, but I've been around the game for a little bit. I tended toward the later stages of my career to somewhat prepare a coaching gig one day. I just didn't imagine it being this quick or in this scenario."
Olsen and Onalfo were United teammates in the late 1990s, and both played at the University of Virginia under Bruce Arena. Onalfo was Arena's assistant during the 2006 World Cup and Olsen, despite long odds created by multiple ankle surgeries, made the national team and played in the first-round finale against Ghana. It was the culmination of a career that began with a Ryan Giggs-like winger winning MLS rookie of the year and MLS Cup MVP awards and ended with a smart and opportunistic central midfielder being named to the league's Best XI in 2007.
Adding to the awkwardness of replacing his friend is the fact that United is a lousy soccer team, and there's little Olsen can do to fix it. The problems facing the franchise are much deeper, and involve poor personnel decisions, a lot of bad luck and a decaying infrastructure that appears almost sad when compared to the progress made by other clubs throughout the league. Think about how the MetroStars compared to United a decade ago, and how the Red Bulls compare now. It's not a pretty picture in D.C.
In Olsen's first game in charge, United fell 1-0 to the New England Revolution. In the second, D.C. dropped a 3-1 decision to F.C. Dallas. It hosts the expansion Philadelphia Union -- managed by former Untied boss Peter Nowak -- on Sunday. Philly is five points above United in the Eastern Conference standings.
"Is it fair to him? This isn't some kind of a kindergarten class. This is his job, and we've asked him to take on this responsibility," Payne said when FanHouse asked if the "scenario" Olsen referenced represented an unreasonable burden for such a young coach. "This is isn't fair to any of us. But Ben's a man and he understands."
Here's how Olsen understands it, and in his words are an indication why he's the very rare brand-new assistant coach who can handle keeping his former team, and MLS's most successful franchise, afloat:
"I guess I look at it two ways. First and foremost I look at it as a duty. My job is here. I'm invested in this club and I've been asked in a difficult situation to take over the team for the rest of the season. That's first and foremost. Second, it's an opportunity for me to step into a role, step outside my comfort zone and learn something, and to learn on the job in a real situation," he said. " I've got a job to do. These are challenges I haven't faced in my life, but it's wonderful in a lot of ways. We're in a tough, tough spot right now with this team and the year we've had. It's disappointing and there are a lot of things to deal with.
"Do I have a lot to learn? Absolutely. But I don't feel overwhelmed. I feel anxious to turn this thing around."