WASHINGTON — Three guests waited for D.C. United interim head coach Ben Olsen as he ambled across the RFK Stadium auxiliary field at the close of Thursday’s United practice. Two were members of the media, but the third was former Georgetown University coach Keith Tabatznik, a Washington-area soccer luminary who had dropped in to watch the session and wish Olsen luck in his new assignment.
“Stranger than fiction,” cracked Olsen as he chatted with Tabatznik about United’s coaching change.
Few would disagree with that assessment. Even before his retirement, many United fans speculated that their beloved midfielder would someday climb the coaching ladder with the same alacrity that he pursued his playing career.
Club president Kevin Payne predicted as much when he discussed the decision to hand Olsen the reins after Curt Onalfo’s sudden dismissal this week.
But no one thought he’d be in charge this soon, only six months after hanging up his cleats and joining the DC staff on the ground floor as Onalfo’s third assistant. Especially not Olsen himself.
“Am I early in this? Absolutely," Olsen said on Wednesday. "Is this a normal circumstance? No. But this is the circumstance and I’ll do the best job that I know how to do. I was asked to do a job for this team and I’ve accepted that.”
The 33-year-old has always maintained an upfront, approachable manner, and he does not hide his discomfort with his promotion ahead of the older, more experienced men on the United staff.
Nor has he attempted to sugarcoat the sobering realities facing a squad which is presently flirting with historical levels of futility this season. Even Payne described Olsen as “taking one for the team” in his acceptance of a job which is clearly intended as a temporary tasking until the entire roster and coaching staff is evaluated at the close of the campaign.
“This is obviously new for me” Olsen said on Thursday. “The whole thing is new and we’re all feeling each other out right now. Our focus right now is just, how can we get a result? We’ve got some ideas on how to do that, the staff and myself, and we’ll move forward with those ideas.”
Olsen remains one of the most well-liked personalities in United history and while his appointment may not quite be a cure-all for a frustrated and disillusioned fan base, his work will be made easier by the respect he has earned both on the field and inside the locker room. His longtime teammate Santino Quaranta called Olsen “a natural leader” and predicted that DC’s dispirited squad would rally under his direction.
“I think Ben’s always been a guy who’s been a thinker about the game,” Payne said. “He’s got very good help with [assistants] Mark Simpson and Chad Ashton and Kris Kelderman, people that do understand what it means to be part of this organization. So he’s got a lot of support in every direction. I think he’ll get the support of our players, and I think he’ll get the support of our fans.”
Olsen will also benefit from low expectations engendered by DC’s 3-12-3 record and six-game winless streak in league play.
“That’s life,” said veteran Jaime Moreno of his old friend’s new challenge. “It’s a job that is never easy for anybody. But I think that having his knowledge and character and the way that he approaches things, he’s going to do good things.”