“We want to create our own big names and win,” Jason Levien said in a joint interview with business partner Erick Thohir, the team’s primary investor. “I don’t feel we need a marketing gambit. This is a soccer town, and they are going to come, especially for quality soccer and playing the right way. If we have a compelling product, people are going to want to be there.”
The owners said they are pleased with Olsen’s performance under difficult circumstances and plan to have him guide the team at Audi Field, the 20,000-capacity stadium under construction near Nationals Park.
“We can get better, but he’s doing a really good job with what we have,” Levien said. “There is a lot of belief and faith in Benny among our players, staff, ownership.”
Expectations, Thohir said, will rise next season.
“When we came in 2012, our main vision was building the stadium and making sure we get into the playoffs,” said Thohir, an Indonesian executive who teamed with Levien that year to purchase the team’s majority rights. “After the stadium is done, we can invest more on the team, so the team can compete for more than just qualifying for the playoffs.”
At this season’s midway point, United has a 5-9-3 record with 11 scoreless performances and is tied for last in the Eastern Conference. However, faced with financial challenges at outdated RFK Stadium, United has functioned for years with one of the smallest payrolls and general operating budgets in the 22-team league.
While many clubs have increased spending, Olsen has worked with General Manager Dave Kasper in cobbling together a roster of prospects, mixed parts from around the league and hit-or-miss imports.
United will continue seeking players this summer — forward Deshorn Brown arrived last week — but has no plans to sign older international stars to lucrative contracts, Levien said. Chicago helped turn its fortunes this year by acquiring German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who will turn 33 in August and earns $5.4 million. (United’s highest-paid player, Argentine midfielder Luciano Acosta, makes $602,000.)
Rather, Levien said, United plans to increase payroll spending in the coming years on young talent, primarily from Latin America, at high but not outrageous prices. Expansion Atlanta United offers a prime model: Paraguayan midfielder Miguel Almiron ($2.3 million), Venezuelan forward Josef Martinez ($1 million) and Argentine wing Hector Villalba ($770,000). Their average age is 23 1/2.
United is also aiming to build around a foundation of goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defender Steve Birnbaum and midfielders Acosta, Ian Harkes and Chris Durkin, a 17-year-old prospect. Hamid (26), Harkes (22) and Durkin were homegrown players; Birnbaum, 26, was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2014; and Acosta, 23, was bought from Argentina’s Boca Juniors last offseason after one year on loan to United. Only Hamid is out of contract after this season; the sides have been negotiating for months.
In his seventh full season, Olsen is the longest-serving coach in United history; none of his predecessors stayed more than three years. His association with United — as a player, assistant coach and head coach — spans 20 of the team’s 22 seasons and has made him the most recognizable figure, past or present, in organization history.
Among Washington’s seven pro sports teams, ranging from Spirit women’s soccer to the NFL’s Redskins, no other coach is close to Olsen’s longevity. Only Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes is ahead of him in continuous service in MLS.
Olsen has guided United to the playoffs four of the past five years and compiled an overall regular season record of 77-88-56, a figure marred by a 3-24-7 campaign in 2013. United won the U.S. Open Cup in 2013 and finished first in the conference during the 2014 regular season but hasn’t reached the conference finals since 2012.
Olsen, 40, has a guaranteed contract through 2019, with a provision to remain in the organization if he is relieved of coaching duties.
“You can see progress” since 2012, Thohir said. “Coaches and players come and go, but from management, we have to show some loyalty,” Thohir said. “Okay, it’s an industry, it’s a business, but the loyalty is also important. It’s not just about the money.”
Levien cited Olsen’s growth as a coach amid limited resources; he became the interim boss in summer 2010 after just eight months as an assistant and less than a year after retiring as a hard-charging midfielder.
“If we hadn’t seen the progress the last three or four years, it might be different,” Levien said. “We have a lot of confidence in him. The old talk about ‘Benny Ball’ has changed. He’s modified the way we play. We want to see more growth, and obviously we’re all under pressure. Erick is being evaluated by the fans. I’m being evaluated. Ben and Dave are. We feel we’re in this together.”
While visiting Washington this week, Thohir said he told the players that “we have to get back to the playoffs, and at the same time, we are adding pieces, so when the stadium is done, we have a team that will be positioned” to begin contending for championships.
Asked if Olsen has an ultimatum to make the playoffs this year, Thohir said: “We have to make the playoffs, but at the same time, we have to support what Coach Ben is doing.”
Levien elaborated, saying: “It’s on all of us. It’s not an ultimatum on Ben.”
Making the playoffs isn’t asking much: Six of 10 teams in each conference qualified last year, six of 11 this year.
The stadium project, Levien said, is on schedule to open next June. United has sold most of Audi Field’s 31 luxury suites. The ongoing season-ticket push will accelerate this summer. D.C. is averaging 16,469 at RFK this season, 18th in the league.
United will work with the league to backload the schedule with home matches, meaning perhaps a dozen on the road to start the season. (The MLS record is 10.)
Possible construction delays, Levien said, wouldn’t prevent the team from playing all 17 home dates in the new venue next season.
“We don’t see a scenario where we are playing at RFK next year,” Levien said.
In the next two weeks, he said, work at the site, located three blocks southwest of Nationals Park, will begin to “go vertical with steel.”
Any speculation that, upon Audi Field’s completion, he and Levien will sell is unfounded, Thohir said.
“People keep saying the same thing,” he said. “We’ve been here several years.”
Added Levien: “As an organization, there’s a sense of pride in fighting to get the stadium done. On and off the field, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”