Olsen gains sophistication with age

He's been the figurative heart and soul of D.C. United for years, and now he's quite literally at the heart of the club's midfield.

Ben Olsen has made the tricky transformation from energetic role player to midfield mastermind, moving into the center of the field as his style of play evolves with age and experience.

That progress has been aided by his diligent work to stay healthy, after being hampered by a litany of injuries in recent seasons.

"I can always be better, especially with the strength issue, the durability," he said. "But really, I've been OK this year -- knock on wood. I've been out four games total; that's pretty good, with my track record of the last couple of years. Hopefully I'm past the injury bug."

Olsen's leadership has been a vital component of United's chemistry, both on the field and in the locker room. Head coach Peter Nowak has relied upon him to set the tone in D.C.'s engine room, and the former U.S. international has responded with his usual workmanlike effort, plus refined distribution and tactical sense.

"They've given me a nice leadership role in there," said Olsen. "They've put that pressure on me, and I like it. I like being the guy they can look to for organization and communication."

Olsen first made his name as a flying winger, terrorizing defenses with skillful one-on-one moves and endless running. He racked up 34 goals, 41 assists and a truckload of awards during a three-year career at NCAA powerhouse Virginia before joining MLS as a Project-40 player in 1998, where he continued his successful ways with the D.C. United dynasty.

Olsen's performances earned him a loan spell with English First Division club Nottingham Forest in the fall of 2000, but what looked like a promising career abroad was cut short by a serious ankle injury the following March. A knee injury ended his 2003 season prematurely, another reminder of professional soccer's extreme physical demands.

Olsen is fully aware of the career-extending benefits of his move into central midfield.

"The flank is nuts," he said, "I can't do the flank anymore. It's just too much. Now that I've seen the middle, I enjoy being there. It keeps your concentration up, because there's action there at all times, whereas on the flanks, sometimes you get switched off because the ball's on the other side, or maybe it's not your day as far as them not getting you the ball. In the middle, you're always involved, you're always battling. I enjoy that type of soccer better."

Now, along with Jaime Moreno, Olsen is the present squad's last link to United's championship legacy, and the glory days of old are a constant challenge to this group.

"It's tough to compare to those teams," said Olsen of D.C.'s three MLS Cup-winning sides. "But lately, I feel that same winning attitude, and I think that's an important thing to take from those years past -- that attitude that when we stepped on the field, we knew we were going to win, especially at home.

"The guys who are here now, they have to hear, 'Back in the day, back in the day, back in the day ...' -- it burns them up a lot of times. But you can take the consistency that we had, it was pretty remarkable for this league. That consistency is what we're missing (now). We've had some good games and we've played a style similar to that entertaining, winning style, but we haven't consistently done that over a long period of time."

Now United, who hold an astonishing 16-1 record all-time when Olsen scores, look to continue elevating their game in preparedness for what promises to be a demanding postseason.

"I'm starting to get a little bit more focused," said Olsen, "and so is the team. We're all zoning in on that focus and intensity that we need for the playoffs."

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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