Josh Wolff needed a fresh start. Ben Olsen needed a seasoned forward with leadership traits.
So in December, with players afforded greater freedom to change MLS teams, old friends reconnected: Wolff, 34, a sleek forward with 13 years of pro experience, and Olsen, 33, newly promoted as D.C. United’s head coach after serving as caretaker late last season.
They had been teammates on the youth national scene, at the 2000 Olympics and 2006 World Cup. They’d been MLS adversaries since entering the league in 1998, Olsen with United and Wolff with the Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards. Both had gotten a taste of European soccer, Olsen in England and Wolff in Germany.
“I needed someone like Josh, a guy I was familiar with, someone who could help me with a young team but also help me as a coach,” Olsen said. “We’ve been through a lot together. He knows me very well and he knows the game very well.”
The payoff was immediate. In his debut last weekend, Wolff scored early in the second half of United’s 3-1 victory over the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium, its first season-opening victory in six years. He will probably start again Saturday afternoon against the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Mass.
Despite being in his first season with United, Wolff will serve as a role model on a squad with 12 players under age 25.
“I’m not here to be camp counselor, but I am certainly here to help guys as well,” said Wolff, a native of Stone Mountain, Ga., who left the University of South Carolina in 1998 after his junior season. “I understand my role at this point in my career.”
Wolff’s career includes nine goals in 52 U.S. national team appearances and inclusion on two World Cup squads. It contains 76 goals and 41 assists in 229 MLS regular season matches. Just two years ago, he set a personal best with 11 goals for the Wizards (now known as Sporting Kansas City).
With the Wizards implementing a new formation last year, things soured for Wolff, who scored only twice in 25 league matches. Long before the option on his contract was declined, Wolff knew he would not return.
“There was absolutely no communication,” Wolff said. “It’s one way to do it; it’s their way of doing it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist at that point to figure out what’s going to happen.
“Last year was probably the least enjoyable of my career. It was the way our team operated and the results [11-13-6] weren’t great either. You have those years, and it was time to move on.”
If not for the new collective bargaining agreement reached before the 2010 season, Wolff might have had trouble moving on. Under the previous deal, MLS clubs could retain a player’s rights, even if he were out of contract and no longer in their plans. To move, a trade was usually necessary.
The rule severely limited player movement and became a major point of contention during CBA negotiations.
The new guidelines called for a pair of re-entry drafts, available to many veterans. It wasn’t all-out free agency, but did create a small offseason market for players wishing to remain in the league and join a different club.
Recovering from a league-worst 6-20-4 record, United held the top pick in each stage of the re-entry process. In the first draft, which requires clubs to pay the player’s 2010 salary plus a 5 percent raise, D.C. claimed a medium-budget forward, Joseph Ngwenya, from the Houston Dynamo.
By selecting a player in the second stage, a club has the flexibility to negotiate a new contract. Leading to it, talks between United and Wolff commenced, and when the sides reached a deal, D.C. picked him. (The union doesn’t release player contract figures until early in the season.)
Because of their history, Wolff serves as Olsen’s alter ego.
“If I am out of line, he’s one of the guys that can maybe pull me aside and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ ” Olsen said. “He’s never going to overstep his boundaries in that relationship, but as a coach, you need guys like that. I trust him as a person and I trust him as a player.”
Said Wolff: “If you’ve been around Benny long enough, you have a sense of who he is, and it’s exemplified in the way he played and the way he is off the field. He has put in the work and we’re all here to help him.”
Wolff’s influence surfaced in preseason. He led by example and forged attacking bonds with new teammates.
“He is so smart with the ball,” midfielder Chris Pontius said. “You play it into him and he knows what the defense is giving him at that moment. He knows whether to turn and play out of it. His runs are smart and he is a good finisher.”
That was on display in the opener with a 17-yard stab in stride to the near corner. Wolff celebrated with youthful exuberance, removing his jersey and leaping into the stands.
“Us forwards, we’re a little silly, so if there’s an opportunity to spice it up a bit, we do,” he said. “And the moment felt right.”
United notes: Clyde Simms (calf) and Jed Zayner (hamstring) will not play. . . . The club re-signed midfielder Brandon Barklage and placed defender Devon McTavish (concussion) on the disabled list.