WASHINGTON – Few coaches in MLS have been the subject of more punchlines, criticism and dismissal in recent years than Ben Olsen. Fewer still are still standing.
Now the league’s second-longest-tenured head coach, Olsen has had to learn on the job with D.C. United, who promoted him from first-year assistant to interim boss after the midseason firing of Curt Onalfo in 2010 – and despite stating that he wasn’t a candidate, eventually gave him the job for good.
That’s the coaching equivalent of jumping out of an airplane and sewing your parachute on the way down. And mastering the trade under the harsh spotlight of a top-flight professional club took its toll on Olsen, particularly because it coincided with some lean years for the club he lovesduring these final years at ancient RFK Stadium.
“Bennyball.” That became the accepted shorthand for Olsen’s solutions to the Iron Chef-esque task he was presented with: Take largely superstar-free squads constructed on a tight budget, and keep them competitive. He won the 2013 U.S. Open Cup and qualified for the playoffs in four of his seven full seasons in charge on East Capitol Street, but the criticisms lingered: Too direct. Too simplistic. Too much grit, not enough glamor. Too many down years.
So now that the Black-and-Red are finally residents at their loud, cozy new home, Audi Field, and spearheaded by a global icon in Wayne Rooney, and knitting together some of the most attractive soccer in MLS – now that he’s leading the hottest team in the league on a rousing stretch-run charge towards the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs, surely Olsen feels at least a little bit vindicated?
“No,” he deadpanned when I asked him that question this week, as D.C. prepare for the Chicago Fire’s visit on Sunday (1 pm ET | ESPN - full TV & streaming info), the latest in their long string of must-win games.
“Vindicated? Right now we’re a non-playoff team. So I, we, haven’t done anything yet. It’s still a season where we’re on the outside looking in. There’s been some momentum and there’s been some fun stuff – I think we’ve got a very good team who’s playing with a lot of confidence and belief and playing in an entertaining way, scoring a lot of goals. So I’m enjoying this, but no. I didn’t know I needed to be vindicated, but thanks for that.”
The first part of Olsen’s answer is eminently reasonable: United are five points out of the Eastern Conference’s sixth and final playoff slot after Montreal's win over Columbus on Saturday. And even if they trounced the Impact, 5-0 last week, they still only get the usual three points for that victory and still must make full use of the three games in hand they hold on Montreal if they are to overtake the Impact in the pursuit of the postseason.
The last part of his answer tells you plenty about Benjamin Robert Olsen as both a person and a coach. The Pennsylvania native, whose life off the field was profiled in the Washington City Paper earlier this week, carried an edge to his game as a player, overcoming severe ankle injuries that waylaid a move to English side Nottingham Forest but couldn’t stop him from an iconic MLS career and a place on the U.S. national team’s 2006 World Cup squad. That same chip on the shoulder continues to fuel his second career, and might just be the secret ingredient in D.C.’s unlikely bid for a trip to MLS Cup.
That said, all that fire and intensity might just obscure our view of Olsen’s most dominant trait as a tactician and game-planner: A keen sense of pragmatism that has helped him adjust to wildly divergent scenarios in his time in charge of the Black-and-Red.
“We’ve grown as a group, player-wise, but the coaching staff has done a great job this year of figuring out how to play each game,” said defender Steve Birnbaum. “I think you’ve seen that in the past, when we played Atlanta we can sit in a low block and counterattack, or we can press teams and make the other teams make a mistake in their half and then finish them off. Or we can build up. So it’s been a good mix and I think it just goes game by game.”
Said goalkeeper Bill Hamid of Olsen: “When I came in he was my teammate. So I’ve seen him really grow in the position. He was kind of thrust into the spotlight unexpectedly when Curt Onalfo was sacked. But Ben has grown in the job and it shows that if he’s given the right players, the right caliber players, he can put something special together.
“He’s a decent man-manager and with the right players in his team, he can really do something special. In 2012 we had a very good team, from No. 1 to No. 30 and we went very far [the Eastern Conference Championship]. 2014, the same [D.C. finished first in the East that year]. So it shows that even though he was thrust into the spotlight very early in his coaching career, he’s learned on the job and it’s paying dividends now.”
Even now, there are those who would discount Olsen’s influence on D.C.’s resurgence and instead hand the credit to Rooney, who has undoubtedly sparked a sea change, both in the locker room and on the pitch. But that would oversimplify the convergence of factors that has finally put a strong breeze in the sails of a club accustomed to laboring into constant headwinds.
“You know me, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Wayne’s influence here has been a small part of this transformation. I won’t say that,” said Olsen. “He’s changed the way we play, and particularly in the offensive half, and his influence in the locker room is something people talk about and kind of see, but it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than what even people are seeing from the outside. So he’s been a great addition.
“But with that, you have to add other factors into this run. We’re home – constantly home. We’re playing in a new building, with the new excitement, a fanbase that’s re-energized. We got healthy. [Central-midfield duo] Russell [Canouse] and Junior Moreno’s playing at a really high level. We’ve got one of the better goalkeepers [in MLS] back, who’s bailed us out a few games where we weren’t at our best … We’ve gotten some luck. So all this stuff adds up.”
To use the well-worn analogy from the culinary world: Olsen has become a much savvier chef over the years. And now he’s finally got some world-class ingredients to cook with. Rooney, playmaker Lucho Acosta and savvy wide men Paul Arriola and Yamil Asad have crafted a devastatingly effective chemistry in the attacking third, liberated by the alert patrolling of Canouse and Moreno behind them.
“A good coach always has, for the most part, good players out there, high-level tactically, technically, mentally,” said Olsen, “and I think we have a good balance on that so there’s some organic stuff happening out there. As is in every case in a free-flowing sport that’s abstract, but there’s also a base and a structure and a foundation that you have to give players in who we are, and what’s our identity.
“That’s been instilled this year maybe in a better way than usual,” he added, specifically crediting assistant coach Nolan Sheldon. “And again, I think we have the highest-quality player that we’ve ever had here. So it’s somewhere in between ‘not dumb luck’ and a well-executed plan.”
United must still walk a tightrope throughout October: Their margin for error is tiny, and they have several tough opponents on their schedule. But they’re right on the verge. And sooner or later, someone is going to have to give Olsen some credit for that. And maybe a great deal more.