Over his eight-year professional career, D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen has built a reputation as a gritty, determined gamer on the pitch and a class act off it, with a bevy of awards like MLS Cup MVP (1999) and U.S. Soccer's Humanitarian of the Year to prove it. Now he's on the verge of capping those achievements with the ultimate goal for any player: a spot on his country's World Cup team.
Some say it's already a done deal, but the world won't find out for certain until 6 p.m. ET Tuesday, when U.S. national team Bruce Arena names his roster for Germany 2006 before a national television audience. Several media outlets have reported that Arena gave Olsen the good news over the weekend, when the former United boss returned to RFK Stadium to be honored -- along with Olsen -- as a member of D.C.'s "Decade's Best XI," but if there was any such revelation during their pregame ribbing, Olsen wasn't telling.
"Yeah, you know, he was busting my (chops)," he said of Arena. "He's always making jokes, trying to put a little pressure on me here and there, and some old-time jokes with the guys. He was just winding me up."
Few players have a longer or deeper relationship with Arena than Olsen, dating back to his college career at the University of Virginia a decade ago and continuing through United's early '90s dynasty era, when Olsen lived with Arena and his family as a rookie.
But he's had to work hard for every step of his journey back into the national team picture, having started the year as a rank outsider whose World Cup window seemed to have passed, only to clamber his way into contention with unyielding effort and a well-timed run of form for both club and country.
"I feel good about how I'm playing right now, and I feel good about what I've done on the national team level the last couple of months," said Olsen. "It really has been an honor to be a part of this whole thing, because five, six months ago I wasn't a part of this, and I wasn't planning on being a part of this. I'm really enjoying it."
Having exploded onto the MLS scene as a flashy rookie winger in 1998, Olsen was a bit too young to make Steve Sampson's U.S. squad for France, but won his first cap that November and seemed destined for a long and prolific international career, especially after playing a part in the USA's fourth-place Olympic team in Sydney two years later.
But that was all derailed by a horrific ankle injury while on loan to English side Nottingham Forest in March 2001. It took more than a year to recover, and since then he's had to adapt to a new, more central position and a dramatically different way of playing the game, relying less on raw athleticism and more on intelligence and savvy.
After being called into national team camp upon United's early exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs last year, Olsen grabbed the opportunity with both hands, knowing it would likely be his last shot at that level -- and gave notice with a well-taken goal against Guatemala in February.
He's maintained that momentum by helping the Black-and-Red race out to a strong start this season, and sent Arena and his staff another message with his first goal of the year against Dallas on Saturday.
"I feel like I'm in as good a form as I get right now," admitted Olsen. "It's good timing ... we'll find out Tuesday. I think I've played pretty well of late. Again, Bruce knows what he's doing. If he wants me on the team, he'll pick me. If I'm not in his plans, he's not going to pick me. I trust him that he knows what's going on."
After the game, Olsen revealed that D.C. coach Peter Nowak and his assistants have been teasing him mercilessly about his World Cup ambitions, and the former Polish national team captain couldn't resist another dig at his veteran leader.
"I think he saw Bruce Arena on the sideline and it gave him some special motivation to put in that game," said Nowak with a smile. "I'm sure these two gentlemen will talk together and we will see what will happen."
Olsen's departure would leave a major hole in United's midfield for about 10 games, and perhaps an even bigger void in a locker room that looks to his leadership. But his quest for Germany has earned the support of the entire United organization -- and based on banners like the one reading "Hey Bruce-Pick Ben!" at RFK on Saturday, that of the team's fans as well.
"Those guys know what opportunities these are," he said, "and I can't speak for them, but I'm sure they would never not root me on and want me to go."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.