Ben Olsen leads D.C. United back into MLS playoffs


Ben Olsen has steered D.C. United to its first MLS postseason appearance since 2007. (Richard A. Lipski/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 22, 2012

If you talked Greater Washington sports five years ago, names like “Gibbs” and “Gilbert” and “Gary” were bound to come up.

No one saw “Davey” becoming part of the conversation then — just as no one saw a “Harper” followed by a “Griffin,” who in 2007 would be, respectively, 14 and 17 years old.

Throw in the Shanahans, John Wall and the overhaul of every pro sports organization and the grid has almost been completely reconfigured.

“It’s becoming a young town, isn’t it?” Ben Olsen said.

Well, yes and no.

See, in all the change, Benji never budged. Ben Olsen wouldn’t go away, remaining contemporary at 35, leading another team to another postseason in the best Washington fall sports story you possibly have not heard about because you are too busy erecting a Touchdown Threesus statue.

We tried to throw Olsen out, told maybe the most competitive athlete this town has known in almost any sport in years to stop playing before he hurts himself again. After multiple surgeries to his ankle and a run that included two championships and more locker room celebrations than he can remember, Olsen finally listened to his body and retired from D.C. United in 2009.

Three falls later, Coach Ben Olsen got United to believe in itself after Dwayne De Rosario, Major League Soccer’s most valuable player in 2011, went down to a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 11. United hasn’t lost in its six games since and hasn’t lost at RFK Stadium since its home opener in March.

Indeed, the Black-and-Red, headed to the playoffs for the first time in five years, is back — back because Ben Olsen never left.

“Did I think I’d still be relevant? Simple answer: no,” Olsen said Monday afternoon, two days after his mix of talented kids and veterans came back twice against Columbus at a sold-out RFK (the team caps its ticket sales at less than 20,000) to secure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2007. “No way I even saw myself coaching this team in 2012.”

He began an expected painful transition from ex-player in 2010, helping former coach Curt Onalfo as an assistant. When Onalfo was fired in early August that year after just three wins in 18 games, Olsen was essentially asked by President Kevin Payne to take one for the team and become the interim guy, a tag that Payne made sure no one thought would be a precursor to the head job after Olsen finished the season 3-8-1.

“I don’t think he’s ready,” he told The Post’s Steven Goff at the time. “It’s been a great learning experience for Ben and I am sure he will learn a great deal over the next couple of years. I fully expect Ben will be our head coach someday.”

But that day came just a couple of months later, when Olsen somehow beat out seven candidates for the job. What changed?

“I over-played the fact that we wouldn’t consider him for a job,” Payne said by phone Monday afternoon. “I always thought he would be the head coach. What I didn’t want to do was give him the job too early. Ultimately, I decided he could be the guy, that after he learned the ropes for a season and went through some growing pains we could really have something here. And I think now we do.”

Any member of the Barra Brava fan club or any of the team’s loyal legions can tell you the past five years have not been the beautiful game’s best days in D.C. United won three of the first four MLS Cups and its last in 2004, becoming the league’s first dynasty. But the monster Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Olsen and others created came back to bite itself, and the years of upheaval that followed made everyone long for the past.

While no one was looking, in came the future. Andy Najar, 19. Bill Hamid, one of the top three goalkeepers in the league, 21. Perry Kitchen, who’s organizing a midfield defense at just 20. On it goes. Chris Pontius is basically the old man of the regulars, at 25.

At the center of it all is Olsen, who pieced it all together after De Rosario went down. He made the right substitutions at the right times. Didn’t matter who it was or when. Goals would appear when needed. Defensive stops were gotten late. United kept winning.

“I’ve made a lot more substitutions that haven’t made an impact,” Olsen said, characteristically mocking his own impact after his team beat Philadelphia last month. “So if you add them all up, I’m sure I’m in the negative.”

In hindsight, it’s all part of Olsen’s possum-playing act. “He tends to be pretty self-deprecating, but in actuality he’s really smart and he tends to pay attention to things going on around him even when he acts like he’s not,” Payne said. “Ben has done a wonderful job of managing personalities, trying to create an environment where young guys can take responsibility for something other than just themselves. That really came to the fore when DeRo went down.”

Further, Olsen is no longer the former great player who happened to go into coaching. After one year of the latter — of getting thrown out of one game and frantically going berserk on the sidelines — he has developed a coaching persona, a more calculated and cool approach. He wasn’t a wild man as a player; Olsen was more controlled chaos on the field. But now he’s almost a monk on the sideline.

“Honestly, I thought I could do it,” said Olsen, who tells a great story of Payne asking him if he could do the job and if he wanted it in 2010, ending with, “I asked him if he was joking.”

“But I had no idea what it took. There were times that first year I was way in over my head. They were patient with me. It hasn’t paid off yet; it pays off when we start winning championships. But I feel better about where we’re all going.”

A new investment group has been underwriting the club. It seems committed to spending money in free agency and, according to Payne, retaining Olsen for years to come. By the time the season is over, the decade-long rumor of a soccer-specific stadium may be a reality. By 2015, United might have its first genuine new home at Buzzard Point, basically a Bryce Harper bomb away from Nationals Park.

These are new, better times for Ben Olsen’s first and only MLS club. In their commitment to youth and their future, here’s thanking his bosses for not forgetting one gem from their past to take along as an invaluable keepsake.

For previous Mike Wise columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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