The news broke suddenly and unexpectedly on Thursday evening, yet no one was really surprised.
Ben Olsen is no longer D.C. United’s head coach, and while his contract and his unquestioned status as a club icon ensure that he’ll stick around in a different capacity for at least a year or so, his departure from that post marks a seismic shift, the end of an era for the club.
This has been a nightmare year for the Black-and-Red, ruined by a torrent of injuries, a persistent lack of chemistry in key areas on the field and a slow, painful drip-drop drain of confidence and belief from the squad and those around it.
Paul Arriola blew out his knee in preseason. Showcase winter signing Edison Flores struggled to settle, then got his face broken in an aerial challenge in a late August match vs New England. A few days later midfield engine Felipe blew out his knee, too. Steven Birnbaum, Russell Canouse, Ulises Segura, Mohammed Abu and Ola Kamara have all been hampered by various knocks and niggles. And all this unfolded in the long, lingering shadow cast by Wayne Rooney’s early departure last year, a crippling loss of quality, personality and star power.
All that left many United observers thinking Olsen – who’s had a nine-lives sort of coaching career thanks to the myriad extenuating circumstances surrounding the club over his decade-plus in charge – might get one more mulligan. Not all of United's 2020 struggles can be laid at Olsen's feet, and high-ranking club officials’ unattributed statements to beat writers like Steve Goff and Pablo Maurer earlier this fall suggested that this was understood by those at the executive level.
But the downward trajectory continued, then accelerated. United’s defense, previously their one reliable touchstone, leaked four goals in each of their past two matches. And the fiasco around Russell Canouse’s would-be substitution in the 4-1 home loss to Atlanta, while not really Olsen’s fault, quickly became an emblem of the team’s decline.
It was a fin de siècle moment, the crystallization of everything that’s gone wrong this year down at Buzzard Point. Somehow the page had to be turned, and as with any other club on the planet, changing out the head coach remains the quickest and easiest way to do so. The players need a new voice in the locker room, and the organization as a whole needs to make a fresh start. And Olsen admitted as much in the statement he gave as part of the announcement:
"It is the right move," read an excerpt from Olsen's statement. "The club needs a new face and this is the right time for the club and also for me personally to move in a different direction."
As someone who has been around D.C. United since 2004 and deeply admires Olsen for the high-quality human being he is, I’m struck more than anything by a sense of relief – and I suspect he too may feel some of that sooner or later. He’s been the face of the club for most of the past 20 years and as coach was directed over and over again to make the best of bad situations while the club languished in financial purgatory over the final years at RFK Stadium, as the rest of MLS evolved and advanced at breakneck pace.
Olsen readily assumed that burden, and carried it without complaint. He was a model District of Columbia citizen to boot, speaking out on behalf of the city’s long-running drive for representation in Congress and raising his three kids in the Shaw neighborhood. I’d even contend that he’s got a promising career in local governance waiting for him when and if he’s ready to try that on for size.
From the moment he was asked to steady the ship as interim boss following Curt Onalfo’s firing in the midst of the nightmarish 2010 season to the final whistle of Wednesday night’s 4-1 loss to NYCFC in the Bronx, with myriad jerry-rigging, stopgapping and tubthumping in between, Olsen never stopped taking responsibility. Never hesitated to leap onto a grenade for the greater good, usually with a wry smile on his face. This year, however, the weight seemed to finally become onerous, sapping his spirit, consuming him.
He played the MacGyver role to a T. But that episode has finally drawn to a close, and now someone else will have to chart United’s course into the next quarter-century of their existence.