WASHINGTON — When he joined the coaching profession shortly after ending his playing career a year ago, Ben Olsen held no illusions about the tough road ahead, promising to “put in a hard day's work after all these years of living the dream.”
D.C. United’s rookie assistant certainly delivered on that front, especially after the August firing of Curt Onalfo forced him to take on interim head coach duties for an injury-crippled, psychologically devastated side stuck in last place.
But a longer workday notwithstanding, Olsen’s dream seems to be cruising merrily on. His surprising capture of the United hot seat on a permanent basis caps an unusually speedy rise up the coaching ladder – and continues one of the more eventful careers in MLS history.
“I’ve led a bit of a fantasy life, you know?” admitted Olsen after his press conference on Monday morning.
“I played soccer all my life as a player, and [as] you go through this process, a lot of ways it’s somewhat of a natural progression. I suppose maybe not this quick, but I don’t feel overwhelmed. Maybe I should. But I feel calm and excited and ready to get moving.”
Olsen will go down in history as the first Project 40 (now Generation adidas) player in MLS history, as well as winner of two MLS Cups, an MLS Rookie of the Year award, a CONCACAF Champions Cup and much more. He was also a regular U.S. international who was perhaps the most unlikely contributor on the 2006 World Cup squad.
And now the 31-year-old is the youngest full-time head coach in league history, breaking the record set by Real Salt Lake boss Jason Kreis in 2007.
As with so many of his other achievements, Olsen’s permanent appointment arrived as the result of unyielding effort blessed with a bit of good timing. This fall, even as club president Kevin Payne said that Olsen was simply too inexperienced to get the job, he was proving his readiness throughout long days of planning and strategy with Payne and general manager Dave Kasper.
“You’re with Ben five, six, seven hours a day,” explained Kasper on Monday. "You’re talking about types of players you want. You’re talking about what our needs are, what kind of players are available. It’s like a month-long interview."
“That’s why we went back to Ben in the process. Does Ben have those qualities that we’re looking for? Is his starting point going to be better? Is his learning curve going to be faster than say, if you’re bringing in a guy from the outside who’s not currently associated with the league? And all those answers came back 'yes.'”
United’s brain trust explored a list of other options before selecting him, according to club officials, and few will ever know the content of the private negotiations that prompted Payne to eventually reverse himself.
But none of that matters to Olsen as he tries to transform the side that finished dead-last in 2010.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Olsen said of Payne’s earlier public comments. “Look, I’m a competitor. Give someone the big office, I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to go back down [to assistant coach] and do that. I certainly was more than willing to do that, but again, I’m a competitive guy, sometimes maybe to a fault.
“But I felt that I could do this. As the season grew on, we still didn’t have the record we wanted, but I saw signs that this team had something in them, and with a couple pieces, that we could be a very competitive team in this league. That’s what we plan to do."
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