CHESTER, Pa. – Wednesday night’s victory by the MLS All-Stars over Chelsea was a celebration of the best the league has to offer, from the biggest names to the quickest up-and-comers.
And yet the standout name on the evening wasn’t the guy named MVP (Chris Pontius). It wasn’t the guy who got my vote (Jay DeMerit). Nor was it goalscorers Chris Wondolowski or Eddie Johnson, nor midfield destroyer Osvaldo Alonso or string-puller Dwayne De Rosario.
It was the guy who wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place: Ben Olsen.
WATCH: Behind the scenes at 2012 All-Star Game
The D.C. United boss may have pulled off the best All-Star Game performance by a head coach since MLS went to the “Us vs. the World” format.
Not bad for a guy who humbly claimed after the game that he “didn’t coach at all this week.”
Coaching the MLS All-Stars against a European club is kind of like that opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark: You’ve got to dodge all the booby traps, contend with your own people turning on you, carefully grab that shining trophy while balancing a counter weight and outrun a giant boulder to make it out alive.
That pretty much what’s in store for a coach who has to pick a roster of players who never play together, develop and implement a game plan over two training sessions with that roster, do your best not to make enemies out of your fellow coaches, find the right balance of coaching in-game while not overtaxing your players and being mindful of the schedule and, oh yeah, contend with an opponent with a roster full of world-class players who may or may not have just lifted some trophy or other.
Guess what? Olsen did it all.
“It’s not easy, even though there are a lot of talented players, it’s not easy to put a real team together,” said Landon Donovan, who has a bit of experience under his belt with his ninth All-Star appearance. “I thought Ben did a really good job – the way he mixed the lineups and the way he mixed players, and it worked out.”
Olsen found the right balance, from relying on the fans’ choice for First XI and then naming the rest of the roster to craft a side he thought could run with Chelsea. And though he’ll never admit it, there certainly was pressure to put out a good performance after two straight shellackings by Manchester United.
The 35-year-old – the youngest head coach in All-Star Game history – navigated everything perfectly. He gave the players time to interact with a light training on Monday. He kept it simple with a more tactical session on Tuesday. He picked a starting lineup with athleticism and star power to keep up with Chelsea’s guns, and he managed the game with caution.
The All-Stars played conservatively and respected their opponents, but they did not “give them too much respect,” as Olsen advised them against before they went out on the field. The MLSers also attacked with confidence on the break and looked composed when they had possession. And Olsen’s substitutions, if sometimes no-brainers, were the right ones:
Inserting Philadelphia Union hero Carlos Valdés for injured Aurélien Collin to bring the crowd back into the game. Keeping hard-charging Steven Beitashour at right back for all 90 minutes. Giving Pontius the best opportunity to be effective alongside his own club mate in DeRo. Saving Eddie Johnson for the time when he most had to make a difference.
WATCH: Olsen, Pontius, EJ on ASG win
And though Olsen tried to downplay how emotionally invested he was in this match, you could see how much the result meant to him when he jumped off the bench after Pontius equalized in the 73rd minute. Such is the advantage of being elevated to head coach a mere eight months after your playing career ends.
“I’ve been fortunate to be coached by a lot of good coaches in these games, but I think Ben is a rising star,” said Donovan. “I think his demeanor is great, I think his attitude with the guys is great. He’s assertive, but he’s respectful, and I think D.C. got a good one.”
How much will Olsen parlay this success back into his club? He’s taken his lumps during his first few seasons in charge, from 2010’s depressing belly flop, to last season’s late letdown to this season’s hot start – which has cooled a bit of late.
But the D.C. icon is pushing all the right buttons. And if Wednesday night’s performance is another piece of evidence, all his players – United or All-Stars – clearly know quality when they see it.
“I’m very glad he had this opportunity and I think it’s a testament to the character he is [and] the success he’s had in such a short time,” De Rosario told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday night, “and hopefully, I can help him to gain more success in the future.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. "The Throw-In" appears every Thursday.