Olsen is under contract through the 2021 season, but in October, after United lost in the first round of the MLS playoffs, Levien said he would evaluate Olsen’s status. At the time, Olsen acknowledged, “If it’s time, it’s time.”
A longtime D.C. midfielder and short-time assistant before being promoted, Olsen, 42, has been with the organization almost 22 years. His high mark as the head coach came in 2014, when United finished first in the Eastern Conference and third in the overall standings.
Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes, who is entering his 11th season, and Olsen boast the longest continuous head-coaching service with one team in MLS history. No previous United coach was in charge for more than three years.
United has qualified for the playoffs five of the past six seasons but hasn’t advanced to the conference finals since 2012. This year, D.C. finished fifth in the conference — a disappointment after starting the year with high hopes — and lost at Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, 5-1, in extra time.
Levien, however, noted unexpected circumstances: Wayne Rooney’s production tailed off in the second half of the season before he announced in August that he would return to England this winter; and Luciano Acosta, perhaps distracted by a near-move last winter to French power Paris Saint-Germain, performed well short of expectations before being benched.
As part of the evaluation process, multiple people close to the situation said, Levien wanted Olsen to be open to embracing fresh perspectives from an additional assistant coach. Beyond that expected hire, the club plans to upgrade the technical department by considering another player-personnel official and more international scouts.
“Our focus the last two months was to work together to bolster our technical staff and give us the best opportunity for success,” Levien said. “Ben has been in the middle of those efforts.”
Levien said he did not want to go into detail about the conversations with Olsen about his future.
“They were healthy discussions,” Olsen said Tuesday. “There was a lot of discussion on how we can push forward from a scouting and technical standpoint and how we can get better.”
Olsen recently returned from a week-long stay in Lisbon, where he observed the coaching staff at Portuguese power Benfica.
One D.C. official, who did not want to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the situation, said Olsen is well-respected in the organization because he is “self-aware, willing to learn and wants to grow as a coach.”
Olsen said of the Benfica visit: “Any time you can pick up on some new ideas in a new environment, it’s a plus. It was a great trip. Benfica was very hospitable.”
Goalkeepers coach Zach Thornton spent time this month with the technical staff at Swansea City, a Welsh club part-owed by Levien that is playing in England’s second flight.
United has been quiet on the roster front. Its only moves were to retain goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who had been on loan last season, and to re-sign defender Frédéric Brillant and backup goalkeeper Chris Seitz.
The club has not signed any free agents, claimed anyone in the reentry draft or made a trade. Like several teams, United is waiting until there is greater clarity on the salary cap and collective bargaining agreement, which expires at the end of January. The league and the MLS Players Association are locked in negotiations in efforts to avoid a work stoppage. General Manager Dave Kasper said he probably would not have any roster updates until after Jan. 1.
United will open training camp Jan. 18. The season opener is Feb. 29 against the Colorado Rapids at Audi Field. Before then, United must fill gaps left by Rooney and Acosta, whose contract expired, and add depth on the back line.
Kasper has been negotiating with Argentine club Estudiantes about purchasing the contract of midfielder Lucas Rodríguez, who performed well on loan with United last season. However, D.C. apparently balked at the initial transfer fee of $2.5 million. Talks continue.
Without identifying specific players, Levien and Olsen said they have targeted players from South America. Also, assistant coach Chad Ashton was scouting this month in France.
Although Acosta will not return, he still holds value for United. Because the club offered him a new contract early this year, D.C. retained his league rights. Should an MLS team want to sign him, United would receive compensation (probably in financial considerations). A D.C. official said at least two Western Conference teams were granted permission to speak with the Argentine midfielder.