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Ankle Injury Leaves United Without Its Heart

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.

"But the one thing he has that this team right now is missing is heart and soul."

A 5-foot-8, 156-pound human projectile, Olsen flew around the field more than ran, his fire and soccer IQ compensating for any lack of flair. His mother once joked his hyperactivity was caused by the power-plant accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, which was less than a mile from the Olsens' home in Middletown, Pa.

"Thank you, nuclear power," Olsen said, smiling.

We were standing in his "man room," where he sheepishly showed off his multitude of awards from the past decade, a ball from the 2006 World Cup he and his teammates signed, and apparently the hat of a chimney sweep, sent to him by grandma Betty Olsen after he scored his first career hat trick against New York last June.

"Grandma's awesome," Olsen said.

Away from his livelihood, Olsen does not want. His wife, Megan, is due with the couple's first child, a girl, sometime in September. His brother, Jeremy, is helping him with home improvements, laying brick in the back yard the other day. Starting United goaltender Zach Wells rents the basement downstairs and often rides to home games with him or, yes, takes Metro to RFK.

Family. Friends. Parenthood beckoning.

But Olsen knows he also is coming off his best season a year ago, when he scored seven goals and had seven assists and was named one of MLS's Best XI for the first time in his career. He hadn't played on the flank in nearly eight years, but suddenly his pace and stride came back as he glided down the pitch, no longer a defensive midfielder, like the old days when Harkes, Eddie Pope and half of United's team made up the U.S. national team.

To have another ankle injury suspend his career indefinitely -- the way his right ankle cut short the dream of playing in Europe, for Nottingham Forest, in 2001, and led to almost two years of rehabilitation before coming back -- takes away some of life's bliss.

"To be frank, I'm thinking I'm going to have to have another surgery," he said. "And the reality of it is, if they do go in again it will be a long road back." Olsen wished he hadn't been so revealing in Steven Goff's article in The Post last week about his health, but conceded possible retirement has "got to be part of my reality right now."

"It's an option," he said. "Not retirement, but more like, can't play anymore. I don't think it will be that official. I'm going to give it a go. I'm going to do whatever these doctors think can get me back. If that's doing one surgery, two surgeries, I'll do that."

What pains Olsen more than his left ankle is watching United play without the intensity he once brought to the field.

"Tactically, I can't say; I'm not a coach," he said, adding he doesn't think the tailspin is Soehn's fault. "But from a guy who's been here a while and a guy who knows what D.C. United is about, we're still missing an edge to us. We're missing [the mind-set] of guys who will do anything for this club.

"I don't know if it's because there are new guys here and they don't have the appreciation for the club and the fans and the organization and what it means yet. But right now we look just very uninspired. For anybody that's for this organization, it's very frustrating. It's not about talent. We look like a defeated team."

He spoke late Thursday as he drove his wife, Wells and a reporter home from the game. Olsen wore a smart gray suit and red and black patterned tie, the uniform to which he's unfortunately become accustomed. Doctors are unsure they can fix the cartilage defects in his left ankle, and time is not healing the last surgery -- one of a half dozen on his ankles the past 10 years.

Olsen said he is okay with his career and accomplishments, if this indeed is it. But another part of him knows he still has so much left to give. "Other than my ankles, I'm fine and ready to go."

He often portrays himself as American soccer's accidental tourist, who just happened to have the good fortune of playing on an Olympic team (Sydney 2000), in the English first division, a World Cup team (Germany 2006) and two MLS championship teams (1999 and 2004).

"I'm not a very good player in the end," he said. "I'm an okay soccer player. I work hard. I'm a pretty good team guy, but I've always been lucky enough to play with great teams."

But others, like Wells, know better.

"Ben has the ability to call out anyone on any given day and no one really takes it personally and that's what we need right now," the goalkeeper said.

Added Harkes, his former teammate: "He digs in. He chases things down. He really puts himself out there. He has always been a guy, for me, that I've always wanted to take under my wing when we were younger, to show him what it means to play for the crest of D.C. United. He took that on and took it even further.

"It would be a shame if he didn't get back on the field. He's got a lot of football still left in him. I think he can do it."

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