For United's Olsen, A Celebrated Return

Ben Olsen played 15 minutes in his first action of the season, entering to overwhelming support from fans.
Ben Olsen played 15 minutes in his first action of the season, entering to overwhelming support from fans. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

Zach Wells had sat down for dinner at the Ben Olsen residence many times since he moved into the basement of the Northwest Washington rowhouse in January, but never had the mood been as thick with anxiousness as it was on Saturday night. His landlord was preparing for a day doctors said might not come again.

As Wells, Olsen and a few neighbors congregated around the table and consumed a meal of brown rice and vegetables that Olsen's wife, Megan, had arranged, discussion rarely wandered from one subject.

"There was a lot more focus on [yesterday's] game," said Wells, United's goalkeeper. "It was like, 'All right, the king is back. The prince of D.C. is back.' "

Indeed, Olsen, the 31-year-old United midfielder who has dealt with persistent pain since undergoing surgery on both ankles last November, returned to the pitch yesterday afternoon in front of 35,979 fans. He played 15 uneventful minutes on the tail end of a 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy. It wasn't pretty, Olsen said after the match, but he gladly would take it.

Unwrapping the layers of tape encasing his feet, Olsen sat at his locker and answered question after question about how a man who was supposed to have surgery last Monday to insert screws into his left ankle instead was able to train throughout the week, about how it felt to be included on the team's 18-man active roster for the first time since October, about how it felt to go from pondering retirement to playing once again.

"It wasn't great; I was like a wounded animal out there," said Olsen, whose shaggy brown hair and beard made him resemble the gigantic banner of a lion that a section of fans waved at the start and conclusion of the match. "Today was a little sobering for me."

Before the opening kickoff, the crowd unveiled its new paraphernalia. In addition to the banner of Olsen's quasi-likeness, three others also were waved: "Ben," "Olsen" and "Heart of a lion." Olsen stood, raised his hands above his head and clapped.

As he prepared to enter the match in the 75th minute, many fans rose to their feet. Olsen subbed in for Jaime Moreno, who passed along the captain's armband. "It gave me chills," Wells said. "Seeing that was one of those feelings that was pretty inspirational, pretty emotional."

While Olsen said he deeply appreciates the outpouring of respect from the fans and his teammates, he remains puzzled as to what he does that arouses it. He played one-sixth of a game. That's all.

Except that's not all. For 10 years Olsen has been described as the heart and soul of his squad by teammates and coaches alike. The 5-foot-8, 156-pound midfielder led the United to an MLS Cup Championship in 1999, his second year in the league. After recording seven goals and seven assists in 2007, he was named to the MLS's Best XI team.

More than that, Olsen has battled through a half-dozen ankle surgeries in the past decade. In 2001, a right ankle injury led to nearly two years of rehabilitation. Last November, he underwent surgery on both ankles in an attempt to clear up bone spurs.

"It was important to get Benny back into the mix," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "Everybody knows how valuable he's been to us."

Everyone, it seems, except Olsen. Rather than have another surgery last Monday, Olsen said he decided to see if he could "gut through some of the pain." On Saturday, Soehn asked if Olsen could physically stand to play a few minutes. Olsen confirmed that he could, unaware then that the crowd would help him through it.

"I don't understand it; I really don't. These people here are so supportive," Olsen said. "I play my hardest not because I have a great heart. I do it because I love to play soccer."

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