D.C. United brings high energy to its first preseason training session

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 12:54 AM

At 10:05 Monday morning, Ben Olsen parked a team van and escaped the bone-rattling cold by ambling into Greenbelt Sportsplex for D.C. United's first preseason training session.

Wearing a club-branded ensemble - black warmups, red jacket, gray cap - and looking as trim as the players under his command, he was indistinguishable in the herd unpacking their gear on the emerald artificial turf. Olsen wouldn't have looked a bit out of place if he had decided to knock the ball about.

Instead, he set down orange markers for drills and consulted with assistants Chad Ashton and Pat Onstad. And after the players completed their stretching exercises, the youngest head coach in MLS history got to work.

"I really enjoyed the team-building process in the offseason and now this is my first real preseason," said Olsen, 33, who began last year as the junior assistant following his 2009 retirement.

"Look, we've got a good game plan for what we want to do the next two months to get ready. The spirit is right and we've got guys here that really want to turn things around."

Named to the post after serving as the interim boss for the final three months of the club's miserable 2010 season, Olsen has already put his stamp on the rebuilding effort by orchestrating the acquisition of players who share his fierce competitiveness and leadership qualities.

Over the next two months, at camps in Washington, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Oxnard, Calif., and Charleston, S.C., he will need to forge camaraderie on a squad with more than a dozen newcomers and restore a winning mentality to a club that hasn't made the playoffs in four years.

"Benny is a tough guy and he always left his heart out on the field," central defender Dejan Jakovic said. "That is what he expects from us. Everyone respects him, as a player and now as a coach. Guys want to play for him and win."

Regardless of the coach, the first day of training camp, in any sport, is typically energetic and exciting. But Olsen's influence was unmistakable during Monday's 90-minute session: Players were animated and vocal during high-intensity drills.

Ethan White, a rookie from Maryland, was treated for a calf injury and defender-midfielder Perry Kitchen, United's first-round draft pick from NCAA champion Akron, received a bloody nose from a stray ball.

"When it first hit me, I was thinking, 'Wow, welcome to the team,' " he said.

Assessing the first practice, Olsen said: "The energy was very good, maybe a little too good at times. It got a little chippy already. It's great. The spirit right now is very good."

Forward Josh Wolff, a two-time U.S. World Cup player acquired through free agency, described the first session as "fast and furious. . . . Benny is new to the coaching side, but a lot of us are familiar with him, how he was as a player with his excitement, his energy and certainly his passion."

Two other offseason acquisitions, midfielder Dax McCarty and forward Joseph Ngwenya, were absent. McCarty, who captained the U.S. national team in a 1-1 draw with Chile on Saturday, was given a few days off. Ngwenya is in the process of moving to Washington.

Players vying to earn contracts include Abe Thompson, a former W.T. Woodson High and University of Maryland forward with six years' pro experience; second-round draft pick Chris Korb, from Akron; and midfielder Brandon Barklage, who is trying to rebound from two knee ligament injuries.

United also remains in search of a proven goal scorer, presumably from overseas.

With preseason underway, Olsen is balancing coaching demands with fatherhood: His wife Megan gave birth last week to Oscar Benjamin Olsen, who joins 2-year-old Ruby.

Describing his sleep deprivation of late, he joked: "I would sell secrets to the Russians very quick if they made me stay up: 'Yup, here it is; you can have them.' I realize I need sleep. My wife makes fun of me that I am nothing compared to her."

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