Over a year ago, when Houston Dynamo FC hired Ben Olsen as head coach, a narrative followed in his wake.
Olsen had spent a decade (2010-20) in charge of D.C. United and, for better or for worse, a reputation emerged. Would he bring the same style, the same tactics to a club seeking a reboot?
“At times we were pragmatic, but the job there was to get into the postseason and then roll the dice as it went,” Olsen told MLSsoccer.com during an in-depth interview. “And I have no problem with critics and people saying 'I didn't like the way Ben played at D.C. United, didn't like watching his teams.' Or 'he's not the right guy.' That's fine with me. That's ok. That's part of being a leader. You're not going to be liked. That takes time to be okay with that.
“Also, I don't have those ill feelings towards the past. Ten years at D.C. United was unbelievable. Some of the experiences I went through and the relationships I built, both with fans and players and management, it was an incredible decade of my life. The one thing I would have done differently is maybe step away a year early. But that's hard to do when you are part of the fabric of the organization.”
Fast forward to the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs and Olsen’s Dynamo are three games away from lifting another trophy after already becoming US Open Cup champions. They’ll host Sporting Kansas City on Sunday night, with the winner advancing to face either LAFC or Seattle Sounders FC in the Western Conference Final (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass; FS1, FOX Deportes; TSN, RDS).
During this faster-than-expected rebuild, which includes a squad refresh with 17 signings across the winter and summer transfer windows, the perspective on ‘BennyBall’ has shifted. Led by Héctor Herrera, the Dynamo are reenergized and deservedly earned a No. 4 seed in the postseason.
“People use the word 'fun,' and I know it's over-used, but when they watch us [and say] 'Your team's fun’ – not only the way they play, but the way they express themselves after we score or the way they interact with the fans – it's a wonderful thing,” Olsen said. “I'm just really trying to enjoy it because I know it doesn't happen [often].
“I've been around enough where these years and these teams don't necessarily happen all the time. So that's where I'm at right now. That and the fact that I want to hold another trophy. The players want to hold another trophy and I don't see why we can't.”
Part of that growth means winning people over, from fans to media and everybody in between.
“I think there's still a chip on the shoulder of this team,” Olsen said. “Any time you still read about the Houston Dynamo or what little I read on the website, it's always, there's still, every compliment's backhanded. I've lived with that for a long time; even when you get a compliment it's got a little tone to it. We’re trying to change that, too.”
During this evolution, one word Olsen stays clear of is ‘redemption.’ He, especially, doesn’t feel like a prove-the-doubters-wrong story is being charted.
“I’ll put it this way: I don't understand what the redemption would be,” Olsen said. “I've made playoffs before as a coach. I've won the Open Cup before as a coach. So then I go to, okay now what? The team, we connect more passes, and we're playing in a more aesthetically pleasing way. Okay? I don't know. It's still a result-oriented business. So, what would I have done differently? Where's the redemption?”
That approach has paid dividends, but it’s also worth reflecting on Olsen’s two years when he wasn’t coaching. He painted in a studio. He was briefly president of NWSL side Washington Spirit. He even worked in soccer television, sharing perspectives from his decades in the sport. Most of all, Olsen readily admits “I was cooked, I was done and I needed a change of venue, a change of scenery.”
Something about the TV work sparked Olsen’s desire to get back in the MLS coaching ring, though. It wasn’t an itch or overwhelming desire, but conversations with Dynamo general manager Pat Onstad and majority owner Ted Segal occurred last year as the club sought new leadership. He was offered the job and dove head-first into a reclamation project, a club that missed the playoffs every year from 2018-22.
What’s emerged on the other side is Olsen’s self-described “most enjoyable season as a coach.”
“Being a part of the locker room and the family, day-to-day kind of ups and downs of a season, I think I missed that,” Olsen said. “If there was anything, it was that. It wasn't the volatility, it wasn't the Sunday mornings after a loss, being distraught that things didn't go your way the night before. I didn't miss any of that, really.
“It was more about, if anything, I missed being with a group on a daily basis and building culture and the relationships with my staff and relationships with players and the fans.”
Adapt and evolve
To reach this point, Olsen says the Dynamo have gone through several versions of their game model. For instance, they’ve changed the midfield balance with Amine Bassi and Coco Carrasquilla finding different spots in and out of possession. Franco Escobar has emerged as their go-to left back, juxtaposed with Griffin Dorsey flying up the right flank. Corey Baird is their No. 9 after cycling through different options in the final third, and veteran center back Erik Sviatchenko has been near-irreplaceable since his midsummer arrival.
Olsen joked they’re on version four of Houston’s preferred approach, applying tweaks as they’ve gone through trials and errors in real-time.
“It's been a process,” Olsen said. “I can't stand that word, but I said it. Because it's exactly what it was.
“I sold a different way of playing to ownership and the idea of what this was going to look like was very, very different in preseason than it is right now. You have ideas as a coach, and coaches are all different. I'm fairly adaptable. In D.C., I did the same thing. We sometimes go about, this is how we want to look, and then as the season went, preseason went, we went 'Oh, s---, we can't do that. We will lose games if we do that. And we will not make playoffs.' So then we adapt.”
Now, as Olsen and his staff put the final touches on facing SKC, he doesn’t lose sight of the big picture. The Dynamo teams of old, that won MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007, created a standard for everybody else in H-Town to follow. Plenty have fallen short in the ensuing years, but good times are starting to return.
What’s key is ensuring these moments aren’t fleeting. It’s one thing for Olsen’s vision – in concert with the front office and ownership – to be successful for a season. It’s another to replicate it long-term and compete on multiple fronts.
“It's about being sustainable,” Olsen said. “I've seen MLS teams have these one-off years where lightning strikes and things happen and things go your way. Things spiral, you get a result and confidence goes and you don't have a lot to lose. The trick here is, okay, capitalize on these years, A. But, B, sustain this and make this club a team that's sitting in the postseason year after year and competing for trophies.
“That's the real challenge here at Houston Dynamo and we're a little ahead of schedule right now. Hopefully we can keep this type of form and these types of results over the next couple of years. Because that's really a true sign of success, I think, is the teams that are consistently in the postseason and consistently putting themselves in positions for silverware.”