Ben Olsen

Ben Olsen is quite aware of how he’s perceived by large swathes of MLS and MLS fandom, including a substantial chunk of the fanbase of Houston Dynamo FC, the club that just unveiled him as their new head coach and the second such hire under owner Ted Segal, who took controlling interest in La Naranja last year.

Having spent half his life as a player, then coach for D.C. United, Olsen is deeply associated with the Black-and-Red, particularly the lean years he spent in charge as the capital club finished up life at ancient RFK Stadium on thin budgets requiring heart and hustle to compensate for modest roster spending.

An irresistible shorthand was coined for the tactical and motivational workarounds he utilized to patch together those D.C. teams, and he fully expects to have it tossed at him in his new gig, his first job outside the Washington area since he was a teenager growing up in Middletown, Pennsylvania in the late 1990s:

Bennyball.

“Oh, it’s coming,” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com with a smile during a one-on-one video interview shortly after his introductory press conference at PNC Stadium on Tuesday. “It’s a badge of honor, that word.”

"I'm proud of what I did"

He says he’s happy to embrace what others might consider a millstone, with so many unable or unwilling to separate their perception of him from the significant constraints under which he led a United organization he loved and served for so long. He’s got more in his toolkit than you might think.

“I can't worry about it too much. All I can do is focus here on what we're building and making sure that our game model here does look a little bit different than that,” said the 45-year-old, who is close to Houston general manager Pat Onstad – soon entering his second year in charge – from their time together in the capital.

“Look, make no mistake, I know defense is a bad word nowadays in soccer, and grittiness and punching above your weight is not very sexy, but I'm proud of my days at D.C. United and I don't care who looks at it in any way. I know I gave everything for that club and I think I, myself and my staff during those years, even though we had some lean years, I would still say overall, I'm proud of what I did there with, again, the resources that I had.”

Challenging road ahead

Olsen will have a great deal more to work with in the Bayou City, where Segal made clear from the jump he and his fellow investors aim to spend as much as is necessary, both on and off the field, to pull the Dynamo out of the doldrums and return them to the MLS elite. Houston, MLS Cup winners in 2006 and 2007, have made the playoffs once (2017) in the past nine years.

He’s been chosen in part because of his perceived ability to ‘coach up’ their existing resources, though some talent infusion will also be necessary for a side that finished this season in the same standings position as 2021 (13th in Western Conference), with just six additional points (36 vs. 30) to show for all of the changes wrought since Segal’s arrival.

Houston’s three Designated Player slots are already filled for 2023: box-to-box midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla, club-record transfer Sebastián Ferreira – who had 13 goals and three assists amid a difficult overall campaign – and Mexican international Héctor Herrera, the latter two pricey additions this year.

The end-of-season roster decisions announced just before Olsen’s unveiling open up as many as 10 slots for new reinforcements, and he sees the middle-of-the-squad belt just below the DPs as key.

“It's always a balance, right? It's MLS. So you have what you have, and you try to enhance that group,” said Olsen. “[Lionel] Messi is not coming here next year. The DPs themselves are who they are and I think that's a good thing, because I rate all three of them. Super excited to work with Héctor. I think this year was a little bit choppy for him with injuries and the World Cup on the horizon.

“ … But within our equation, it's going to be bolstering that next tier, some of the TAM players that we are able to add to make this team improve and try to get into the playoffs.”

A new start

As longtime Olsen watchers would expect, he wants to make his new team organized, resilient and tough to play against, much like the Dynamo teams of old who terrorized the Western Conference in the late oughts and early 2010s. That doesn’t inherently mean dour, defensive soccer. Houston’s leadership is aware a frustrated fanbase must be won over by both aesthetics and results alike.

“Pat has been really adamant about being more on the front foot. But we still have to be pragmatic and we can't go from here to there overnight. So there's going to be steps in that, and we still have to win games, grind out games,” said Olsen, who vows to “implement a game model that makes sense, that's pragmatic, but proactive and exciting” for their long-suffering supporters.

“We do have to have something to fall back on as far as the game model and structure that the players believe in, and that is exciting to watch,” he added. “But exciting to watch doesn't mean to be back and forth, run and gun, 4-3 every game. I believe people do like when teams still play with heart and are tough to play against. So it's just finding that balance in the short term. But the goal is certainly to push the game, be proactive, win the ball up a little bit higher, regain possession and have sustained possessions in the other team’s [end].”

Olsen admits he burned out at the end of his time with D.C. Following his dismissal in late 2020 he plunged headlong into his art career – he’s sold thousands of dollars worth of the vibrant, abstract-expressionistic paintings he creates in his studio in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood – and helped the Washington Spirit win the 2021 NWSL championship during an executive stint with that club before making a brief foray into television commentary with ESPN. He also stated Houston’s opening was the only job he interviewed for.

Ironically, considering Olsen repeatedly downplayed his interest in coaching when he was a player, his old profession tugged at him. He’d told Onstad he wasn’t ready when the GM called him last winter. When Houston launched another coaching search after the early September firing of Paulo Nagamura (less than a year after taking over), he felt ready to dive back in this time, even though it means uprooting and relocating his family of five to a new city.

“Over the last six months I've been itching,” he said. “I've been itching to get back in the locker room, slowly kind of realizing that this is where I need to be again at this stage in my life. This opportunity came about, the project itself was very appealing to me, it resonated with me.

“I was convinced that I was the right guy for this job to help hopefully usher in a little bit of a new era here, with the help of new ownership and a friend who I trust in Pat Onstad, who I think has already put some building blocks here that I'm excited about.”

Olsen might even try to learn a new language in the process, mindful of the Latino character of both his roster and south Texas at large. He’d have help there from his three children, all of whom have been attending Spanish-immersion schools in the District that should ease their adaptation to Houston.

“I’m energized. I'm very excited. I feel good. I feel like it's the right move,” said Olsen. “And that's good enough for me right now.”