Olsen's recovery leads to national stage
Within moments of Bruce Arena's high-profile announcement of the U.S. national team's World Cup roster on ESPN's SportsCenter on Tuesday, many journalists began searching for the most compelling Cinderella, the "feel-good" story of the 23-man group.
D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen can make a strong claim to that label, having dramatically resuscitated a once-promising international career that seemed dead just six short months ago.
Five years ago, he seemed to be a lock for the squad that would travel to the Far East for World Cup 2002, having established himself as one of Major League Soccer's most fearsome wingers while racking up 18 appearances with the national team. But he shattered his right ankle while on loan at English side Nottingham Forest in March of 2001, and various complications led to four surgeries and more than a year away from the action.
In the wake of Tuesday's announcement, Olsen spoke candidly about that dark period, revealing that he'd all but given up on his World Cup dream after his initial hopes of a rapid return to the international scene were dashed by that discouraging series of setbacks.
"You're ambitious in coming back from your injury," he said, "and then after time went on, I wasn't part of the national team in a lot of qualifiers and big games. I kind of put it to rest. I was at ease with not being with the national team again."
After finally putting his ankle woes behind him, the University of Virginia product worked tenaciously to reinvent himself as a central midfielder, and his pivotal role in United's 2004 MLS Cup championship run grabbed the attention of his old mentor Arena. Olsen played a part in the U.S. team's Gold Cup winning squad last summer, but remained on the fringes of the player pool until D.C.'s early exit from the playoffs.
"It's crazy how it happens," he said. "Last year we got knocked out of the playoffs with Chicago, and probably that's the reason I got called in to the Scotland game, because we were out of the playoffs and (Arena) needed some players. So I go over there and do OK, good enough to get me into camp in January.
"I told my agent, I'm going to give this one last shot, and take the offseason as serious as I can, here with our trainer, doing a lot of work with him, getting fit. Then I just kind of started getting on a roll with the national team."
One of the few players on the 23-man roster not to feature in the qualification process, Olsen earned his ticket to Germany by way of his excellent 2006 form -- but Arena surely factored in the personal attributes that will contribute much to the U.S. team chemistry.
"I think Ben truly deserves to go to the World Cup," said United coach Peter Nowak. "Wherever you put him on the field, he always gives you everything he has. He's smart, he's experienced, he's great in the locker room, he's a great motivator for the young guys. I think the national team needs his spirit, and also his leadership. It was an excellent choice by coach Arena."
His colleagues offer glowing praise as well.
"Yeah, we're really happy for him," said D.C. captain Jaime Moreno. "I think he deserves to be there, and I'm just so happy to see a teammate go to the World Cup, something that everybody tries to achieve. It's amazing to see him go, and we wish him all the best."
Olsen is eager to soak up the atmosphere of the world's biggest sporting event, but he is adamantly pragmatic about his chances for playing time.
"Make no mistake, I'm a role player on this team," he said. "There's a very small chance that I'll be starting and being a big player in this tournament, unless things happen. I'm mentally prepared for that. I know that's my role. Hopefully I will get some time at some point, and it will be remarkable. It's going to be great to experience it. I've thought about it for a long time, and I'm more anxious to see what that feeling is like."
His club coach, who spent many years in Germany as a star playmaker for Bundesliga sides Dynamo Dresden, Kaiserslautern and 1860 Munich, offered Olsen a few words of wisdom.
"I think he needs to try to eat the bratwurst," said Nowak playfully. "I'm sure he's not a big drinker, so I expect that when he will be in Munich, he will have the Weissbier in light portions.
"My advice to him is just to play the same way as he did with our team for the last three years. The way we play, the way we react, how is the locker room -- everything that is important to the team, he is a big part of that. I'm sure he's going to be the same way for the national team."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.