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.
D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen embodies his home town’s scrappy mentality
“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.