WASHINGTON – D.C. United capped a four-month-long search for their next head coach on Monday morning, awarding the job to interim boss Ben Olsen in a dramatic about-face from repeated assertions that the club’s longtime midfielder would not be considered for the position on a permanent basis.
From the moment the club dismissed former coach Curt Onalfo in August, United president Kevin Payne and general manager Dave Kasper were steadfast in their declarations that Olsen would serve as a temporary leader only, citing his lack of experience.
Payne said they held formal interviews with six candidates for the position and casual talks with many others. But over the past month, the charismatic Olsen rose to the top of the club’s list by virtue of his long history with United, his adroit player management over the final stages of the 2010 season and his ideas for the roster-rebuilding process that is already well underway at RFK Stadium.
“Dave and I interviewed a number of candidates with a variety of backgrounds as we went through this process, and we tried to look for certain qualities in those candidates,” said Payne on Monday.
“And as we talked about the importance of trying to find the right candidate who understands the culture of D.C. United, the relationship that D.C. United has with its fans and its community, the role that D.C. United has traditionally played in Major League Soccer, it just became more and more apparent to us that Ben Olsen fit that bill better than any of the other candidates with whom we were speaking.”Olsen was rewarded with a three-year deal with the club. Chad Ashton will shift from his duties as technical director and will serve as first assistant coach under the DC icon.
The hard-working Olsen had already won a lasting place in the hearts of United fans when he retired almost exactly one year ago, and his midsummer selection as interim coach helped galvanize fans and players alike at the lowest point in the Black-and-Red’s historically poor campaign.
“Ben asked me very early in the process to keep an open mind, in spite of my public posturing, and I agreed unequivocally that we would do that,” explained Payne. “Part of the reason that I took the position I took was, I didn’t want there to be more pressure on Ben, or on the club, regarding his future at the end of his interim period.”
The 33-year-old’s startlingly rapid progression from player to junior assistant to top dog makes him one of the youngest head coaches in MLS history. While he admits he still has much to learn, he expressed confidence in his ability to steer a proud franchise back to relevance and end a three-year playoff drought.
And despite the grinding stress of leading a cellar-dwelling side, he clearly hasn’t lost his famous sense of humor.
“I knew all along he was bluffing,” wisecracked Olsen when asked about Payne’s previous statements that he was not ready for the head coach’s job.
“I was surprised, I was,” he added in a more serious tone. “I had my mind fully prepared to go back into an assistant coach role and resume learning the trade. That’s not what I wanted, and I was always hopeful that I’d continue to do this as head coach. I was flattered and honored that they would trust me in the role that they have given me.”
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