Commentary: Why DC United need Ben Olsen more than you think
WASHINGTON – It had been months since my last visit to D.C. United's training session, and when I stopped in at RFK Stadium in the wake of the club's astonishing US Open Cup championship last week, Ben Olsen let me know it.
“You're never around!” he exclaimed with his trademark mixture of humor and irritation. “You f---ing write a bad article, and now you show up after we win a championship!”
Olsen was referring to last week's column on MLSsoccer.com about the contrast within the Open Cup final's odd-couple pairing, wherein the last-place team in MLS – his United, a dynasty fallen on hard times – visited one of the league's most consistently successful ones, Real Salt Lake.
Olsen is a straight shooter who has rarely sugarcoated the dire straits his team has experienced this season. But he's also a proud competitor who refuses to let the squad's unlikely cup triumph be drowned out by their league woes.
“Yeah, we're not the prettiest team this year. Last year we weren't the prettiest team, either,” he told me. “But we got to [the Eastern Conference final] last year, and we found ourselves in a final this year.
“I'm not letting people take this away and concentrate on 'last-place D.C. United.' I want them to focus on the team that got to a final and found a way to turn this season into a positive.”
If MLS observers are wondering why United's owners are reportedly keeping faith in Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper despite the team’s historically bad results this season (though the team declined to comment on the report), that quote provides a glimpse into the hows and whys.
Olsen is United. After investing his entire adult life in the club, the only one he's ever known (aside from a promising loan stint at England's Nottingham Forest in 2001 cut short by a serious ankle injury), the fourth-year coach and the Black-and-Red have become synonymous with one another.
This has become particularly important during a time of persistent transition at an institution where history and stability is revered perhaps more than anywhere else in American soccer.
“Tradition” is more than just a slogan at United. It's a mindset and a mantra, one that for several seasons has even been stitched into the team's jerseys. Olsen achieved almost everything while wearing that uniform, and plenty has been invested – financially and emotionally, and certainly spiritually – in his mission to do the same while prowling the technical area.
As Olsen knows, D.C. have a crowded trophy case at RFK. But with waves of turnover to the roster, front office and even the ownership group, he's one of the last living links to the salad days, and it makes him more – much more, in fact – than just the guy who runs practice and picks the lineups.
Forced to learn on the job when United hastily fired Curt Onalfo midway through an awful 2010 season and turned to him – at the time the coaching staff's junior member with barely six months of the trade under his belt – Olsen has ridden plenty of ups and downs over the past three years.
In July he passed Bruce Arena, Thomas Rongen and Peter Nowak to become the longest-serving head coach in club history, and he’s somehow made the role his own. And he's certainly embraced the city itself, where he, his wife Megan and their two young children live in a classic D.C. rowhouse along the famous U Street Corridor near Howard University.
Deeply invested in both his club and its home market, Olsen grew up in the good old days, and he admits it will essentially be impossible to recreate them in modern MLS. But he's already put his own personal stamp on United's current incarnation and the dispiriting start to this season has forced him and Kasper to get a head start on the process of regeneration for 2014.
“We've had months to discuss next year. We've been working on next year – unfortunately – for a long time, what we want to do and how we want to go about it,” he said last week, noting that the stretch run is an audition for fringe members of his squad. “So there's a little bit of an advantage in that we've started early.
“With the mechanisms that we get from the league by finishing very low in the table, we should have a lot of opportunity to make this team better,” he added, also noting the allocation money D.C. will receive from the league for qualification to CONCACAF Champions League. “So now it's up to myself, Dave Kasper and [scouting coordinator] Kurt Morsink and the rest of the staff to get help in here and make sure we're making good decisions on how we move this team forward.”
And when United finally make their long, long-awaited move to a new stadium at Buzzard Point, which could happen as soon as 2016, it will mark the dawn of a dramatically new era that Olsen is hungry to experience at the helm.
“The league's changed. There's never going to be a dominating team like the early days of D.C. United – it's just not going to happen,” he said. “It took time for teams to figure out the recipe and how to go about the league. ... The parity in this league is unbelievable, and it will continue to be so, as long as the rules are the rules. To compare us now to the teams before and what we had in those early years, I think it's ridiculous, I do.
“[But] we're not dead,” he insists. “We've got a new stadium coming. We've got energy with our fan base now with this [Open] Cup. So it's not [all] doom and gloom.”
Ambitious owners Erick Thohir, Will Chang and Jason Levien won't keep betting on a losing coach forever. But if Olsen can't lead United back to success, then some intangible, but important, part of the club will be lost.
And for now, anyway, the D.C. United brain trust has decided it's a part well worth investing more time in.