WASHINGTON – When Ben Olsen retired from a 12-year career last October, he had no idea he’d be in charge of his former team a mere 10 months later. But as D.C. United continued to struggle, Curt Onalfo was let go this past August and Olsen, an assistant coach, was handed the reins as interim head coach.
Though the team responded to the grizzled United icon’s leadership, it wasn’t enough to prevent the worst season in the proud club’s history. Olsen won’t return as head coach, but will undoubtedly remain on the coaching staff. He sat down with MLSsoccer.com to discuss what went wrong and what went right in 2010.
MLSsoccer.com: Have you had time to reflect and take stock on United’s rough 2010?
Olsen: Not enough, probably. I don’t think I’ve had too much time to think about it as of yet. But first and foremost, we’re all disappointed in the way the season went, because it was a very tough season for us and our fans. It wasn’t a happy time around here. That part was very difficult.
But if I can put that aside and be selfish and think about myself, I’m very lucky and happy that I had this opportunity to grow on the job. It was a great opportunity for me to put myself into a job that I probably wasn’t ready for, and to jump in and get through it and get through a tough second half of the year. Down the line, I think I’ll look back on it as a very valuable growing process for me as a coach.
MLSsoccer.com: What went wrong for DC this year?
Olsen: I think we all kind of agree that it’s been a bit of a perfect storm. We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some players not at their best, we’ve had some signings that didn’t work out the way we wanted them to. And I don’t think we got any bounces either, throughout the year. You need all that and we didn’t really have any of it. Maybe one thing leads to another and it snowballs from there.
MLSsoccer.com: What do you think was most lacking?
Olsen: Our team identity wasn’t what it needed to be. I don’t know if we had enough guys that were – I don’t know what it was. It was a good group and I thought we got through some tough times and we stayed together as a group, but something was missing.
If we were a better defensive team and we had some guys that stepped up and made big plays this year on the defensive end more often, we’d obviously be in a better spot. And if we had someone that got hot – we need a 15-goal guy. We need a 10-goal guy. And we didn’t have that this year. I think we created opportunities. I think we created a fair amount of opportunities, but the final third stuff wasn’t good enough and sometimes when that happens, the defensive lapses are amplified.
MLSsoccer.com: The team has a number of talented young defenders. How long can you afford to wait for them to mature?
Olsen: We always have talent here. That’s never been an issue with D.C. United. But again, that balance of talent and guys that get it done is always very thin. And we need guys that get it, get what it’s like, know how to win games and know how to be professional and have the fire that it takes to succeed in this league.
Maybe that’s one thing we’re missing with this team, missing in our identity, is a couple guys that really get it, know what it takes to win. That is a very contagious thing and I think every team is looking for those type of guys.
MLSsoccer.com: Do you think the dismissal of Onalfo had the desired effect?
Olsen: That’s a tough one for me to answer. I kind of sum the season up in three stages. One is early where I thought we played some very good stuff, and we couldn’t finish. We would have lapses once or twice and get punished for them. Then it got to that second stage where we were losing so many games in large part because, I thought, we weren’t good enough on the offensive side. So we became defensive and tried to lock it down and it got a little better, but eventually, that wasn’t the way we were meant to play and we struggled in that scenario as well.
Curt got let go and there was a little fire in the team, whether it was me coming on, whether it was fear of losing jobs or just a straight wake-up call. I think there was improved energy, improved commitment, but this is nothing new in the sports world. When a coach gets fired, there’s always new energy from the beginning, and I thought for the rest of the season it continued.
I was never worried about the commitment of the guys from that point on. But again, our deficiencies were still the same. We still couldn’t score. We still didn’t have the right composure in the final third and we still gave up childish goals. We gave up bad goals week in, week out and continued to let each other down defensively.
MLSsoccer.com: What are the highlights for you amid those struggles?
Olsen: In a year that was this tough, things could’ve gotten really bad, off the field within the team. And we stayed together, we didn’t make it even a tough situation than it already was. That’s not easy to do. I’ve seen these type of situations and things off the field go down the tubes very quickly: players pointing fingers at each other and at management. We stayed together and that’s a positive.
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