Ben Olsen has been described in many terms by his teammates and coaches this season -- the heart and soul of the lineup, a natural leader, team spokesman, the critical link between the defense and the attack -- but until Saturday evening at Giants Stadium, there was one moniker he had failed to attain: goal scorer.
Olsen, in his eighth MLS season since leaving the University of Virginia, seemed incapable of finding the net this year. Opportunities did not come along very often in his defensive midfield role, but when they did, he would often send weak rollers at the goalkeeper or launch wild volleys into the night.
Then came the most recent match against the MetroStars in which Olsen broke out of his scoring funk with not one, but two goals during a 4-1 victory that secured a playoff berth for surging United and rekindled memories of his early days in the league when his unbridled energy helped him become one of MLS's top flank players.
On the late-night bus ride home from New Jersey, he was the reluctant center of attention.
"I kept having to remind the guys that I had scored goals in this league before," Olsen said, trying not to laugh. "They all thought it was the biggest deal in the world for me."
Olsen, 28, boasts the longest continuous service to the club, evolving from MLS rookie of the year in 1998 and most valuable player of the league championship game a year later, to sideline observer for 16 months after breaking an ankle and, these days, veteran leader with new responsibility.
He and Brian Carroll do the dirty work, clogging passing lanes, disrupting the opposing playmaker and initiating the attack.
"Everybody was happy for him because he got rewarded for his hard work," Coach Peter Nowak said, reflecting on Olsen's first career two-goal game. "Sometimes it's very difficult for these guys like Benny and Brian to get the recognition. Benny's ability brings the level of play a little higher, he has the fitness, the ability to read the game, and he can make corrections on the field."
Olsen had a combined nine goals and 19 assists in his first two seasons, but an ankle injury cut his 2000 campaign in half. After playing for the United States at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, he was nearing the end of an impressive offseason stint with English club Nottingham Forest in early 2001 when he broke his ankle.
Many, including Olsen, say he hasn't been the same player since. Which has meant adapting to a new way of playing.
"It's been a bit of a survival," the Middletown, Pa., native said. "After the injury, I had to change. There was a good year and a half, two years where I wasn't right, I wasn't physically back. I had to adapt, get smarter and be more cerebral about the game."
He didn't return until midway through the 2002 season and made 10 appearances. The following year he regained his starting job and contributed four goals and seven assists. When Nowak arrived last season, Olsen embraced his new role in defensive midfield and helped the club win its fourth MLS title. On occasion, he has also found himself back in his old neighborhood on the flank.
Nowak, who retired from playing in MLS about three years ago, remembers the fully charged Olsen of yesteryear and how he has changed.
"He went hard all the time," he said. "That's why he had so many injuries. He just never slowed down, never took a day off. He didn't relax and think about taking care of himself. As you get older, you realize you have to do that. I think he's getting smarter."
Olsen jokes that, as he gets older, he is moving farther back on the field. "Who knows," he said, "maybe in a year or two I'll be at right back and then in goal."
United Notes: Tonight in Utah, United (15-9-5), which has won three straight and four of five, will face a Real Salt Lake squad (5-20-4) that has lost nine in a row. This is United's final road game of the regular season. . . . United forward Santino Quaranta and Real defender Eddie Pope are away on U.S. national team duty, and Real defender Gustavo Cabrera is with Guatemala.