MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — To uncover Ben Olsen’s roots, ditch the Pennsylvania Turnpike in central Pennsylvania and follow the Susquehanna River downstream past the Harrisburg airport to this working-class borough of 9,000, which was settled more than 250 years ago.
“Quintessential small-town America,” said Jeremy Olsen, the older brother of D.C. United’s revered former midfielder and current head coach. On Wednesday night, 86 miles east of here, Ben will guide the MLS all-stars against European champion Chelsea FC at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
Two blocks from the town clock stands a yellow, three-story Victorian built in 1900. Around back is where the Olsen brothers played an improvised game of soccer. When sunlight faded, the dim glow of an antique street lamp rigged up by their father, Dana, allowed the games to continue uninterrupted.
A wooden playhouse, meant for younger sister Erin, served as the prop in fierce one-on-one games. Kicking the ball through a door or window earned points. A narrow space between the back of the structure and a fence honed ball control, improvisation and strength.
“Jeremy was bigger and wouldn’t take it easy. He would just beat the hell out of me over and over,” said Ben, 35. “We’d play for hours. It was exhausting. It was the greatest.”
The small, rectangular back yard was among several spots where Olsen embraced soccer, which, at the time, was as foreign to Middletown — and much of small-town America — as an Ethiopian restaurant.
“Soccer was behind football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, track and field, plus spotting deer at night and running with your friends down the road,” said Jeremy, 38, who played at James Madison and Temple.
Ben’s success — a 12-year MLS career and appearances at the 2000 Olympics and 2006 World Cup — has helped soccer gain a foothold here. The youth program has grown and Middletown Area High School won a state championship in 2001.
Olsen’s framed jersey hangs in a hallway at the school. Certificates and national player of the year honors remain in the trophy case. Down the hall is an autographed U.S. Olympic flag he signed.
“You mention Ben Olsen to kids here,” former Middletown coach Bob Stitt said, “they know who you are talking about.”
Go east, young man
Olsen is also beginning to make a name for himself as a coach. In just his second full season at the helm, he has steered United to a 10-7-3 record, and despite three losses in four matches, the club remains on pace to earn a playoff berth for the first time since 2007.
Olsen’s immediate task is overseeing the league’s select squad against Chelsea in Chester.
Coaching in the eastern part of the state stirs memories. After outgrowing the local and regional youth leagues, he joined elite clubs and state select teams that practiced and played several times a week in the Philadelphia area. His mother, Carol, would usually drive, at least three hours roundtrip.
“I didn’t appreciate it then, doing homework in the car, getting leg cramps in the back seat, but that’s where the best soccer was,” Olsen said. “I still don’t know why my parents did it; maybe it was the joy they saw I had playing on a bigger stage.”
It was a new world for a teen from a small town.
“We’d stop in Lancaster, eat a hot dog at Nathan’s and buy underwear at the outlets,” he said. “Central Pennsylvania, that’s all I knew. We didn’t have Wawa [convenience stores]. When I saw those around Philly, I knew I was in uncharted territory.”
Soccer was in the family’s blood. Carol was the registrar for the Middletown league, Olmsted Regional Soccer Association. Dana coached. Jeremy and Erin also played. The local fields, Jednota Estates, were carved out of cornfields owned by a Slovakian group on the west side of town. A printing press and old orphanage, both shuttered, still sit on the property.
Olsen also excelled at tennis and basketball but was encouraged by visiting English coaches to stick with soccer. His work ethic and teamwork — which defined his college and pro careers — were evident at an early age.
“He recognized that, to get to where you want to be, you have to share the ball and cooperate,” Jeremy said. “So you combine that trait with the fact that he acted like a monkey and played like a monkey, and he took off.”
Beyond the back yard, the boys took to an alley behind the family property to pound soccer balls off a wooden furniture warehouse. The neighbor’s brick house was also a target. “Jeremy is the reason I played,” Ben said. “I followed him.”
‘Demonstrates his values’
Olsen’s mother jokes that radioactivity contributed to Ben’s hyperactivity. In March 1979, six weeks before Ben’s second birthday, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history occurred at the Three Mile Island power plant — the facility took its name from the distance to Middletown’s town center.
Carol was walking with Jeremy and Ben to story hour at the library a block away when fire trucks rumbled through town instructing people to head indoors. With fear of radiation spreading, families with young children were encouraged to evacuate. Carol and the boys were gone for about a month.
To reassure residents, many of whom were employed at the plant, President Jimmy Carter visited. Dana returned after a week to a mostly deserted town — one neighbor guarded his home with a shotgun.
In subsequent years, Ben participated in a Penn State study monitoring the health of children living near the plant. He never showed any illness connected to the accident. Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 closed — the haunting skeleton remains — but Unit 1 continues to generate power today. Within view of the cooling towers, a plaque commemorating the incident is posted on the side of Route 441.
Olsen drew from Middletown’s working-class personality.
“It’s a blue-collar town,” he said. “People admired people who were tough in my town.”
As a player, Olsen reflected his home town with a rambunctious and tireless style. United President Kevin Payne often called him the “heart and soul of our team.”
Along those lines, as a coach, Olsen’s first requirement is energy and dedication. In his words, “the soccer part will come but the commitment has to be there.”
Olsen retired after the 2009 season and was named an assistant coach. Late in the 2010 campaign after Curt Onalfo’s dismissal, he was elevated to interim boss. Payne didn’t believe Olsen was ready for the full-time job but Olsen persisted during the search process. Ultimately, he became the youngest permanent coach in MLS history.
A late-season rut ended United’s 2011 playoff hopes, but this year the club spent a few weeks in first place before a recent slump.
“It doesn’t surprise me one iota,” Dana Olsen said of United’s resurgence under his son. “He demonstrates his values and he works hard. He is the Energizer Bunny with integrity.”