WASHINGTON – When a boss uses the phrase “taking one for the team” to describe an employee’s new job, there's no mystery about who can usually expect long hours and seemingly endless work in the days ahead.
That was D.C. United president Kevin Payne’s choice of words when he elevated rookie assistant coach Ben Olsen to the top job immediately following the dismissal of Curt Onalfo on Aug. 4.
Sure enough, United’s interim leader had to negotiate the steepest of learning curves in the subsequent weeks.
“I wouldn’t say I’m having a blast,” Olsen said after Wednesday’s training session. “This hasn’t been much fun.
“But I think sometimes tough times like this are how you grow. It’s important for me to step back every now and then and not totally get consumed by this, and realize this is a great opportunity for me to learn the job.”
Even well-traveled experts in the trade could easily be daunted by Olsen’s to-do list: Motivate and inspire a last-place team, keep the fans on board, lay the groundwork for a 2011 transformation – and do it all in time to avoid record-setting statistics of ineptitude this season.
D.C. United are 1-4 in league play since Olsen took over, and lost to Columbus in last week’s US Open Cup semifinal matchup. They’ll take on Toronto FC at BMO Field on Saturday.
“I think he’s just trying to get results, and he doesn’t know quite which way to turn sometimes, just like us – we don’t really know which way to go most of the time,” D.C. goalkeeper and former Olsen teammate Troy Perkins said. “But you know, he’s taken it on, he’s taken it well.
“It means a lot to him to have this position, obviously. He bleeds the colors and he’s done a lot for this club.”
Olsen’s biggest challenge lies in the bewildering speed of his transition. United’s longtime midfield legend knew life would change when he retired last winter and traded a player’s typical three-hour workday for a coach’s full-time schedule.But less than a year later, he must now shepherd an entire squad.
“For a couple days I think he felt a little overwhelmed,” noted DC technical director Chad Ashton. “You come to realize how nice it was as a player, that really, all you needed to do was concentrate on playing.
“Now he’s got to work at it for every guy on the field.”
Olsen quickly adopted the marathon hours of a typical MLS boss, diving headlong into his own personal crash course in management with the assistance of the veteran coaches on his staff.
“Just like he did as a player, his work is unbelievable,” said Ashton, a former United assistant who has returned to the bench since Onalfo’s departure. “He’s looking at the game from every possible angle.
"He’s got an obviously great soccer mind, and it’s about now trying to pass that along to the players. It’s an interesting dynamic because it’s some of the players he played with, and I think especially those guys want to fight even harder for him.
“If you watch him work, he’s a sponge," Ashton added. "He picks up everything and picks it up quick.”
Anyone who watched him hustle around the field throughout his own playing career can imagine how galling Olsen finds the current reality. He hopes to steer his team out of the league’s basement spot before season’s end and to achieve that, they’ll need to perform at or near their best against a host of playoff-chasing opponents.
“This is a real character check for myself, this team, our fans, the whole organization,” Olsen said. “It’s a very easy time to give up, but hopefully that’s not what we’re about and that’s not what we’re made of."