Ben Olsen has spent his entire adult life in Washington, D.C. “It’s hard to believe,” he said from behind the desk in his office, stray soccer balls on the floor in the corner, an old-time sign advertising “Choice sugar cured corned beef and tongues” on one wall, an industrial look for an industrial space. The view from here is . . . well, it’s nonexistent, dank and dark under stands at RFK Stadium that are no longer used. There’s grit and there’s grime, which fits so many of the clubs for which Olsen played and coached.
“It hasn’t all been sunshine,” Olsen said. “But it’s been great. It’s been great.”
Olsen is intertwined with soccer — and with D.C. United specifically because he played 221 matches over 11 seasons for the black and red, then immediately became an assistant coach, then the head coach after half a season, whether he wanted to or was ready. That he sits here still, with a home playoff game coming Thursday night at the club’s gleaming new stadium, approaching the end of his eighth full season as head coach, is unlikely — but also kind of heartwarming because this wasn’t some sort of predetermined path to a life well lived.
“I didn’t understand the game,” Olsen said. “I didn’t understand management. I had no business being a coach.”
He’s a veteran coach by now, predating anyone else in town. He is also very much of Washington. Not how outsiders normally would think of that phrase — burdened by an inside-the-Beltway mind-set, bouncing from K Street to Capitol Hill to take sides in some partisan rancor, everything that Middle America thinks about this city, our city.
Rather, he’s a D.C. family man, raising his kids with his wife in Shaw, sending them to public schools. Ryan Zimmerman arrived here at the end of 2005 and has been ever since, living in McLean, even in the offseason. Alex Ovechkin’s first season began that fall, and it would be shocking to see him in something other than a Capitals sweater, but Washington always has come second to Ovi’s hometown of Moscow.
Zim and Ovi, they’re the stalwarts most prominently and frequently recognized as mainstays here. But Olsen? He arrived as a midfielder straight from the University of Virginia in — get this — 1998. He has been here since. In a profession that is defined by its volatility, in a city that is characterized by its transience, Olsen has found uncommon stability.
“I feel very connected to this city,” Olsen said. “My family is wedded to this city, and my kids identify with being from Washington, D.C., being Washingtonians. But I feel maybe even closer to this club than I do [to the District] just because of how much energy that I’ve put into the club and also how much opportunity it’s given me.”
The opportunity at hand: Thursday night’s knockout-round game against the Columbus Crew at Audi Field. As a player, Olsen won two MLS Cups with United, and he is firmly entrenched in the franchise’s history because of it. As a coach, he hasn’t approached one yet. But this game Thursday night, it could be the start of something. United is unbeaten in its past 10 matches. It has an international star in Wayne Rooney, who not only brings buzz and his own scintillating game but has managed to raise the level of play of those around him.
What, then, might be the potential here?
“The potential this year, I think, is to,” and Olsen paused, “to win the whole thing. There’s been very few games in the second half of the year where I felt like we couldn’t win. If that’s the case, I don’t see why we can’t go the whole way.”
It’s an astonishing thing to say given where Olsen and United languished in the spring, in last place and seemingly without hope. Shoot, go back to last year, when United won just nine times in 34 matches, tied for the fewest points in the league. There was a developing burden, and the opening of Audi Field, the facility at Buzzard Point that pulls United into modern MLS, wasn’t always enough of a carrot.
“Losing, it’s just emotional,” Olsen said. “When this is all these guys want to do is win, after a long season like . There were a lot of meetings, a lot of individual meetings. There were a lot of fires to put out. Because guys were just tired of [expletive] losing.”
When Olsen has had lousy seasons — United won just three times in 2013 — there have been extenuating circumstances, a low-budget club that couldn’t find the right mix of talent to scrap and grind out wins. Intellectually, he can understand that — as can his bosses. Living through it? It can create doubt.
“I think there’s always doubt,” he said. “. . . Maybe fear of failure’s a better way to put it. It’s constantly there. Hopefully, one day I’ll step away and I won’t have to deal with that edge of every weekend: trying to win. I look forward to that one day.”
Looking forward. It’s not something that comes easily to Olsen. “I’m a pretty short-term thinker,” he said. He has these playoffs with what he considers the most exciting United squad of his tenure — either as a player or coach, which is saying something. He has a contract for next year. Beyond that? United will open a $50 million training facility in Leesburg, an hour’s drive from Shaw. In five years, will he be making that commute? Shoot, in five years, will he still be a coach?
“I don’t spend a lot of time — I probably should — thinking about the future of where I see myself in five years and this grand plan,” he said. “It’s never been the way I’ve done things. I know I’m here now, and I know I’m going to do what I can for this club, and something ‘next’ will pop up.”
Next, at the moment, are the playoffs. Next, at the moment, is Columbus. But Ben Olsen, D.C. United and the District, they have been woven together for so long, it’s hard to imagine one extracting itself from the others. Isn’t the safe bet that Olsen will look up from his desk in 10 years and find himself with another United training session to run, another United match to coach?
Plus, as a short-term thinker, what’s the matter with the present?
“Right now, I’m really enjoying it,” Olsen said. “And I haven’t said that very often in this chair.”