United Midfielder Ben Olsen Provides Leadership in Return from Ankle Injury

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

In his first start in nearly 17 months last Sunday, Ben Olsen knocked around the ball with purpose and knocked away opponents intruding in D.C. United's central midfield. He set up scoring opportunities and, with the captain's colors strapped to his left arm, set the example for two rookies and two recent acquisitions.

And after 72 minutes passed and the time came to allow a younger, faster teammate to enter, Olsen trotted off the Home Depot Center field in Carson, Calif., with his left ankle still functioning and his hunger to play as ravenous as ever.

"I am still standing," he said after yesterday's workout at RFK Stadium to prepare for tonight's home opener against the Chicago Fire.

Three months ago, Olsen was on the verge of retiring, convinced that he would not be able to meet the demands of training camp, endure the aches and pains from numerous operations, and return to a high level after playing just 15 minutes in one midseason game last year.

But through preseason work, which was administered gradually and monitored closely, he earned a starting assignment for the MLS season opener, a 2-2 tie with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

"I don't think he missed a beat," United midfielder-defender Devon McTavish said. "He did what Benny does -- getting into tackles, picking up everyone around him, creating some stuff offensively. We missed his leadership a lot last year, and just having him on the field gave everyone a bit more confidence."

Defender Bryan Namoff added: "Benny brings a presence. He is just a nuisance in there. . . . It's been a long road. Most players would have said, 'That's it, I can't do it.' "

Olsen, who turns 32 in May, acknowledges that he is not the same player who earned Best XI all-league honors in 2007 and menaced the right flank from endline to endline since jumping from the University of Virginia to MLS in 1998.

In United's five-man midfield last weekend, he paired with Clyde Simms in a deep central slot to help fortify a young back line and provide support for playmaker Christian Gómez. He also played there regularly in 2004, teamed with Brian Carroll (now with Columbus) to help United win a fourth league title.

The physical limitations, however, have forced him to alter his approach.

"As you physically decline, you have to be sharper mentally," he said. "I don't think it is really that profound. It's pretty obvious that, if you can't get to the space [on the field] quicker, you have to take a better angle. It's no different than anyone who gets a little older and has to play a little smarter."

Olsen also sees himself in a critical leadership role on a team that lacked direction at times last season and missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. In yesterday's interview, he referenced Richie Williams, the rambunctious defensive midfielder who helped United win three MLS Cups in the first four years of the league.

"I can help with keeping young guys in tune out there. As a young guy, 90 minutes is a long time to focus and I took a lot of plays off" when Olsen was new to MLS, he admitted. "As much as I hated [Williams] on the field because he was constantly barking at me, now looking back I realize how crucial he was to the team and keeping guys like myself switched on."

This offseason, no one questioned Olsen's passion to play or his ability to motivate young players. But after all the ankle setbacks, there was legitimate concern about his physical capability.

In training camp, he had good days and bad days, but as the season approached, the ankle responded well to the increasing workload.

At times, when he feels he is overextending himself, Olsen limits his training, but in general, "it's much better than I thought it would be. I am very happy with where it is. Now I think I am going to possibly make it through the beginning part of the season. We'll start with that part and go from there."

United Notes: McTavish and defender Greg Janicki (head lacerations), and midfielders Santino Quaranta and Fred (hamstring) said they do not expect to play. Goalkeeper Louis Crayton (hip flexor strain) might return to the starting lineup after missing the opener. . . . Chicago starting defenders Gonzalo Segares and Bakary Soumare are unavailable because of national team commitments with Costa Rica and Mali, respectively. . . . United claimed off waivers former Colorado midfielder John DiRaimondo. He had one goal in 11 league appearances (eight starts) last year.

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