Ankle Injury Leaves United Without Its Heart

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The Washington Post's Mike Wise catches up with D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen at his home in Northwest. Video by Atkinson & Co.

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By Mike Wise
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ben Olsen had his own segment on Comcast SportsNet last year, which producers called "Ben's Breakdown." Entertaining, newsy, it even had its own acoustic guitar riff.

"Fun stuff," the D.C. United veteran said, fingering the ball of his scarred left ankle, acknowledging that the title now seems cruelly ironic.

" 'Ben's Breaking Down Again,' that's what this year will be. Maybe we'll make [the music] more morbid -- a Nine Inch Nails-type deal."

The ankle's surgical scars still are fresh from a few months ago, the appendage keeping Olsen from playing professional soccer now and, perhaps, ever again. As he sat upstairs in his homey Northwest Washington rowhouse on Thursday afternoon, ghoulish humor has become his best coping mechanism against reality.

It's no coincidence Olsen's body is crumbling the way United is crumbling. Once Olsen's surgery for bone spurs in his left ankle did not heal properly, once part of the foundation went down, the entire house cratered.

Tom Soehn's club was shut out by Chicago at RFK on Thursday night, has been unable to score a goal on the road in three games and looked utterly listless against Colorado last weekend. The team that had the best regular season record the past two years in Major League Soccer is in last place in the Eastern Conference, and it's pretty clear the franchise's most familiar face alongside Jaime Moreno will not be able to help for at least a year -- if then.

Soehn mentioned "passion" and "energy" as missing commodities in his curt news conference after the Chicago loss, which Olsen has brought for the better part of 10 years to United.

"We can talk about Ben all day," Soehn said. "We obviously miss him dearly. But he's not there, so we have to move on without him."

Olsen turned 31 last week. Olie Kolzig, who just bid adieu to the Capitals after almost two decades in goal, is just 38 . Even in sports, something about relatively young men growing old in their profession never seems right.

Olsen moved to the District a decade ago, earning the rookie of the year award in 1998. By his second season, he helped United to its third MLS Cup, scoring and capturing the MVP award in the final against the L.A. Galaxy.

"I knew right away he was going to be something special," recalled former United star John Harkes, who saw Olsen play at Virginia. "Excellent player with his feet. Great imagination. Good, smart, soccer brain."

Harkes paused, moments before he would broadcast Thursday night's game for ESPN2.


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