Game changer: Olsen made a smooth tran­si­tion to coach

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY THOMAS FLOYD

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 KANSAS CITY AT UNITED Satur­day: TV: 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 913-12 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 [for] 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, hard­work­ing, 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.”

Added Ron­gen: “The team re­ally has be­come Ben Olsen’s team. And I think that’s why this year you can maybe be a harsher critic of Ben.”

Bal­anc­ing act

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.”

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Ben Olsen was an as­sis­tant un­der Curt Onalfo in 2010 be­fore tak­ing over as coach af­ter United strug­gled to a 3-12-3 start.

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