D.C. United's Ben Olsen retires

Multiple surgeries on his ankles left Ben Olsen having difficulty even walking and forced him to retire from competitive soccer.
Multiple surgeries on his ankles left Ben Olsen having difficulty even walking and forced him to retire from competitive soccer. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ben Olsen came to the realization that his soccer-playing career should probably end this fall when he had trouble carrying Ruby, his 13-month-old daughter, down the stairs of his family's row house near the U Street Corridor. He had endured nine combined surgeries on his ankles during his 12 seasons with D.C. United and a regimen of pills and injections in recent years that allowed him to continue as the club's inspirational leader.

"It spooked me a little bit, it spooked my wife, the way I couldn't carry my child down the stairs at times," Olsen said Tuesday at RFK Stadium during an emotional news conference announcing his retirement. "You come to a crossroads: At what cost do you come back and play? I don't want to play another season at the cost of damaging my ankle even further. It's damaged enough."

Olsen, 32, steps aside having played the most continuous seasons in United history. He was the 1998 MLS rookie of the year, a two-time MLS Cup winner and represented the United States at the 2000 Olympics and 2006 World Cup.

Although he is second on the club in regular season games played (221) and starts (200), third in assists (49) and seventh in goals (29), the midfielder from Middletown, Pa., will be remembered most for his tenacity, guidance and unbridled enthusiasm that helped United emerge as MLS's most decorated team.

Olsen was also heavily invested in the District, a longtime resident and community volunteer who didn't shy from conversations with fans on the sidewalk or at Ben's Chili Bowl. In 2003, MLS named him its humanitarian of the year.

"There have been many, many great players over the years at D.C. United," said Kevin Payne, club president since its inception in 1996. "But I don't know if any of them made any greater impact on the culture of this club and on the hearts of our fans than Ben Olsen."

United seems intent on retaining those qualities. Sources close to the situation said Olsen is a prime candidate to become an assistant coach after the club hires a head coach to replace Tom Soehn, whose three-year term ended this month.

Olsen said he does not want to be considered for the top position -- "I am in no way ready to step into that role" -- and added that "there is other stuff out there. I have some anxiety about what is next, but I am excited to see a new challenge."

This year, though Olsen was well enough to appear in 20 of 30 league games and start 18, he and the coaching staff had to carefully manage his playing time and practice routine in order to avoid long-term setbacks. "I got through it -- let's say -- through modern medicine," said Olsen, who played three years at the University of Virginia before turning pro. "It was definitely with help of anti-inflammatories and shots and things that I don't know how long you want to keep doing. As the season ended, I wanted to cleanse myself from a lot of that stuff and then the reality hit. The ankle showed itself."

Olsen's ankle trouble actually began in early 2001 when, after his third season with United, he suffered a fracture while on loan to Nottingham Forest, an English club that seemed on the verge of purchasing his contract. He missed the 2001 MLS season and more than half of the following campaign before regaining his health and fitness and reclaiming his starting role for the next five years.

"I lost a step, for sure," he said. "In some aspects, I got better. I got a little bit better upstairs [in his head] than on the physical side. . . . I enjoyed my soccer a lot more as I got older. I started to understand the game a little bit, started to slow down and not be as streaky. I always strived to be a consistent player, but it didn't happen until late."

After enjoying the finest season of his career in 2007 with seven goals -- including a hat trick against New York -- seven assists and selection to the Best XI all-league team, Olsen underwent surgery on both ankles to repair damage caused by wear and tear. Everyone expected him to be ready for the '08 season, but problems persisted and he underwent several additional procedures. One ankle improved, the other did not.

"The more I think about it, my feelings become relief that I don't have to deal with this, relief that I don't have to deal with the pain for another year," Olsen said. "I don't mean to be dramatic about the pain, but it was part of my life, and as you play, it definitely consumes your year."

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