Three guests waited for D.C. United interim head coach BenOlsen as he ambled across the RFK Stadium auxiliary field at the close ofThursday’s United practice. Two were members of the media, but the third wasformer Georgetown University coach Keith Tabatznik, a Washington-area soccerluminary who had dropped in to watch the session and wish Olsen luck in his newassignment.
“Stranger than fiction,” cracked Olsen as he chatted with Tabatznikabout United’s coaching change.
Few would disagree with that assessment. Even before hisretirement, many United fans speculated that their beloved midfielder wouldsomeday climb the coaching ladder with the same alacrity that he pursued hisplaying career.
Club president Kevin Payne predicted as much when hediscussed the decision to hand Olsen the reins after Curt Onalfo’s suddendismissal this week.
But no one thought he’d be in charge this soon, only six monthsafter hanging up his cleats and joining the DC staff on the ground floor asOnalfo’s third assistant. Especially not Olsen himself.
“Am I early in this? Absolutely," Olsen said on Wednesday. "Is this a normalcircumstance? No. But this is the circumstance and I’ll do the best job that Iknow how to do. I was asked to do a job for thisteam and I’ve accepted that.”
The 33-year-old has always maintained an upfront,approachable manner, and he does not hide his discomfort with his promotionahead of the older, more experienced men on the United staff.
Nor has he attempted to sugarcoat the sobering realitiesfacing a squad which is presently flirting with historical levels of futilitythis season. Even Payne described Olsen as “taking one for the team” in hisacceptance of a job which is clearly intended as a temporary tasking until theentire roster and coaching staff is evaluated at the close of the campaign.
“This is obviously new for me” Olsen said on Thursday. “The whole thing is new andwe’re all feeling each other out right now. Our focusright now is just, how can we get a result? We’ve got some ideas on how to dothat, the staff and myself, and we’ll move forward with those ideas.”
Olsen remains one of the most well-liked personalities inUnited history and while his appointment may not quite be a cure-all for afrustrated and disillusioned fan base, his work will be made easier by therespect he has earned both on the field and inside the locker room. Hislongtime teammate Santino Quaranta called Olsen “a natural leader” andpredicted that DC’s dispirited squad would rally under his direction.
“I think Ben’s always been a guy who’s been a thinker aboutthe game,” Payne said. “He’s got very good help with [assistants] Mark Simpsonand Chad Ashton and Kris Kelderman, people that do understand what it means tobe part of this organization. So he’s got a lot of support in every direction. I thinkhe’ll get the support of our players, and I think he’ll get the support of ourfans.”
Olsen will also benefit from low expectations engendered byDC’s 3-12-3 record and six-game winless streak in league play.
“That’s life,” said veteran Jaime Moreno of his old friend’s new challenge. “It’s a job that is never easy for anybody. But I think thathaving his knowledge and character and the way that he approaches things, he’sgoing to do good things.”