WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Saturday night, midway through the final postgame press conference of his interim stint as D.C. United head coach, Ben Olsen was asked whether the team had improved under his watch.
His answer gave a hint of the personal evolution brought on by his unscheduled stint in the lead dog’s role.
“I don’t know, that’s not for me to gauge,” Olsen said. Then he paused and reconsidered.
“Maybe it is for me to gauge.”
Showing the sort of reflection and candor that is unheard-of for many coaches, he then summed up his side’s rough season in a nutshell.
“I think in some areas, we improved,” Olsen admitted. “But again, overall, our deficiencies continue to haunt us. The same things that haunted us early in the season, in the middle of the season, haunted us towards the later stages. So again, I think some of it got better, but the things that made us lose games didn’t get better.”
The longtime United midfielder retired and joined the coaching staff less than a year ago, and he soon underwent a shock introduction to his new profession as DC stumbled through the worst season in club history. His midseason appointment in place of Curt Onalfo was a franchise first, subjecting Olsen to the rigors of head coach based – essentially – on personality alone.
“I was asked to do something for the club, a club that means a lot to me, and I tried to do the best I could,” he said on Saturday. “Was it good enough? I don’t know. It wasn’t necessarily fun, but I’ve grown a lot as a person in this short span, dealing with some of this stuff, and I think I’ve grown as a coach.“I think in a week or two, when I step back from this, I’ll be OK with how I’ve done,” he added. “I know the results weren’t there, but again, I think the way we competed and at least took pride in what we were doing, we can be proud of that. But at the end of the day we just weren’t good enough.”
The Black-and-Red went 3-9-1 in all competitions under Olsen, with a winning percentage roughly equivalent to Onalfo’s tenure, though injuries and a range of other factors limit the value of such comparisons. But Olsen kept morale as high as could be expected and he hopes to glean something positive from the tribulations.
“They say you learn more in these type of seasons than you do when you win,” he said on Saturday. “If that’s the case, I got my first college education. I've seen, hopefully, the bottom. I've seen how bad it can be throughout a season, as far as wins and losses and things not going your way, injuries, signings not working out, referees not always on my side.
“And probably bad coaching – I’m sure we can throw that in there. It's been a perfect storm this year, it really has.”
His players’ commitment left no doubt about Olsen’s ability to nurture and motivate. But even now, he himself refuses to take his new line of work for granted.
“We never know who’s going to be a good coach,” he said. “You can speculate – ‘this guy, he’s got the right personality’ – but there’s so many moving parts to this thing that, who knows? I don’t know if I’m going to be a good coach. It’s a very tough question.”
One year into a three-year contract, Olsen will in all likelihood return to a junior position on the United staff and he maintains that he’s comfortable deferring to his incoming successor.
“I don’t know what the situation is right now, he said. “That’s OK with me. I’ll continue doing my job as interim head coach until I’m told I'm not interim head coach. I’ll sit and wait, and if someone is hired, I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with them or him, and see if there’s a place for me in that mix.”