As D.C. United’s players slowly trickled off the field following a late-October training session, the sun peeking through the clouds enough to create the illusion of warmth, Ben Olsen stuck around.
Olsen, United’s 35-year-old coach, stood at the near end of the pitch with assistant coach Chad Ashton and lined up soccer balls outside the area.
Wearing a United pullover and long black pants with white stripes lining the sides, Olsen gauged his competition: Bill Hamid, D.C.’s freakishly athletic goalkeeper.
“I’ve got two shots,” he said. “I’ve got the dipper and I’ve got the curler. Which one you want?”
Olsen’s voice strained and his teeth clenched as the word “want” left his mouth the instant his right foot struck the first ball.
“I’m like fire and ice, baby,” Olsen said, confidently referencing Blades of Glory.
As more quotes spewed from Olsen’s mouth with joyful ease, the duo of coaches peppered the 21-year-old ’keeper, who was doing all he could to not be scored on by his manager.
“That’s some hot, hot Tabasco.”
Another ball into the top corner of the net, not unlike the brilliant shot Olsen unleashed during his playing days to record a hat trick at RFK Stadium in June 2007 against New York.
A near miss. He jumped in a circle.
Olsen hit a few more before walking toward the sideline, his head slightly bowed and his arms dangling at his sides.
The face of D.C. United’s rebirth has work to do.
Since taking over the most successful franchise in MLS history fulltime in November 2010, Olsen has steadily grown comfortable in the manager’s role, moving beyond the sting of a playing career cut short by a series of ankle injuries.
Whether from his youthful exuberance, his tactical expertise or his commitment to the organization – or likely a combination of all three – Olsen has led United to a place where the team hasn’t been since, well, when Olsen was running inside the white lines instead of along them – the playoffs.
Now on the verge of the club’s first postseason match since 2007, arguably Olsen’s finest season on the field with D.C., it’s becoming clear why General Manager Dave Kasper and President and CEO Kevin Payne committed to Olsen becoming the coach at such a young age.
“Everyone wants to be around Ben,” says Kasper. “He’s got this personality that’s self-deprecating. While he’s intense, he’s also light-hearted. You can have a laugh with him. The litmus test of a successful coach is players playing for you. They have to like you and want to work for you. They certainly do that for Ben.”
As a player, Olsen was feisty. Heck, even nasty at times, fueled by a relentless passion for competition and being better than the other guy. It has been a constant give-and-take for Olsen learning to balance those traits with those of many mild-mannered MLS coaches.
Ashton and Kasper have agreed Olsen’s calmed down a bit since shifting roles, but his passion hasn’t waned. Nor have the theatrics. Following each of D.C.’s final two goals against Columbus the night United clinched a playoff spot in front of the home supporters, Olsen let loose. After the equalizer by Marcelo Saragosa, he jumped into the arms of Ashton, who lifted Olsen up as they celebrated. On Lewis Neal’s game-winner in extra time, Olsen jumped on the metal bench, only to realize everyone else had stood up off the bench. He nearly toppled over.
“He made the transition from a player to a coach, so he gets it,” center back Brandon McDonald said of Olsen. “He’s a players’ coach, so for us going in, you can sit down and talk to him and he’ll be honest with you.”
He’ll school you, too. Even with ankles that have gone through multiple surgeries, every time Olsen slips on a pinnie and joins his players in a training session he displays flashes of what made him one of the best players to ever wear a black D.C. kit.
“I think a lot of guys want to kick him, to be honest with you,” said center back Dejan Jakovic said, who was a teammate of Olsen’s in 2009. “They don’t like when he comes in because he still has it. He’s a great player. He hasn’t lost much.”
In just under three seasons as coach, the learning curve has been kind to Olsen, whose scruffy beard seemingly possesses the ability to regenerate overnight. Entering his first full season at the helm in 2011, Olsen led United to a 9-13-12 record following the worst year in club history.
“He works at it,” Ashton said. “He spends a lot of hours thinking about the game, studying the game, and all of that’s starting to show up.”
As Olsen works, he carries around rolled up tubes of paper, or maybe a small, folded sheet that he’ll slowly tear apart, piece by piece. Something to keep himself moving, to keep his mind occupied before tackling the next task.
In leading his 2012 side to the playoffs, Olsen’s task wasn’t easy. In fact, it was compounded greatly when reigning MLS MVP Dwayne De Rosario was injured in September and ruled out for the remainder of the regular season.
Olsen immediately shifted the team’s personality, imploring the group to become more defensive-minded and work better as a unit. The result was astounding. Bolstered by successful substitutions and a commitment to defense, United finished the regular season 5-0-2 and grabbed the second seed in the Eastern Conference, a stark contrast to their 1-5-1 collapse to end 2011.
“That only happens if you get the backing of the guys,” said player/assistant coach Josh Wolff. “As a player, you want your coach to believe in you. You want your coach to make you feel you’re just as important as your star. It’s something that’s reflected in the fact of how we all react and respond when we do well.”
For all of Olsen’s success as a player – the 1993 National High School Player of the Year, the 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year at Virginia, two MLS Cup Titles, MLS Rookie of the Year, and award after award after award – he’s about as genuine as it gets. Kasper said he’s the type of guy who could run for Mayor of D.C. if he wanted.
Earlier this season, after Olsen was inducted into United’s Hall of Tradition, he was asked about the honor during the post-game press conference:
“It’s always tough,” he said. “As a coach, individual awards don’t mean what they used to. As a player, that’s all I played for.”
Olsen smiled and waited for the laugh before he issued a mild-mannered, “just kidding.”
“You see a drive and a motivation to succeed because he’s been this organization for 15 years and now he carries a lot of responsibility in moving this organization forward,” Wolff said.
The Thursday before Olsen’s first playoff game as a coach, and many of his players’ first taste of the postseason as well, Olsen spoke about moving away from the past. About this group creating its own signature moments – the ones he and so many of those who are passionate about the organization look back upon with pride.
Even if Olsen’s comments were lost in the shuffle of the playoff hoopla, there were plenty of other voices that echoed his sentiment.
Just ask his players.
“That’s why Ben’s here,” Hamid said. “He brings that experience into the locker room and gives us that faith we need, that courage and desire to work hard in the game. If we do that, we will start writing our own history.”