Current Black-and-Red players aren't the only ones who have used MLS' SuperDraft to launch careers—United's first team coaching staff contains three former professional players who used earlier versions and variations of the draft system to start their careers in the league. Head coach and Black-and-Red legend Ben Olsen was one of the first players to receive a Generation adidas contract, which was formerly known as being a Project-40 player, and the deal landed him in the nation's capital prior to the 1998 season. MLS goalkeeping legend and United director of goalkeeping Zach Thornton was selected in the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft by the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Finally, assistant coach Chad Ashton was selected by the Dallas Burn in the 1996 MLS Supplemental Draft.
While the draft system has seen amendments over the years, the principle remains the same—young, aspiring soccer players can use the draft system as a tool to break into professional soccer.
Here's a look back at how Olsen, Thornton, and Ashton used the draft to get their starts in Major League Soccer.
Head coach Ben Olsen
Current head coach and former standout midfielder Ben Olsen made a name for himself at the University of Virginia under Bruce Arena. His dominance at the collegiate level led to Olsen being named a Project-40 player (now known as a Generation adidas contract player) and he was allocated to United on Dec. 27, 1997. He stormed on to the MLS scene, and his tireless work ethic and technicality in the midfield ultimately earned him 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year honors.
In his rookie season, Olsen contributed six goals and eight assists in all competitions on the way to winning the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup and the InterAmerican Cup. The midfielder's trophy cabinet solidifies his spot as one of the elite players in MLS history with two MLS Cups (1999, 2004), three Supporter's Shields (1999, 2006, 2007), one Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (2008) and three Eastern Conference Championships (1998, 1999, 2004). Olsen made more than 200 appearances for the Black-and-Red in a 12-year MLS career spent exclusively in D.C., and he endeared himself to fans and pundits with his bold playing style, precise passing and fearlessness in the tackle.
Now the head of the Black-and-Red, Olsen's third pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft will offer the head coach an opportunity to further bolster his squad with a player from the talented pool of MLS Combine players.
Director of goalkeeping Zach Thornton
There are few goalkeepers in MLS history who have achieved the heights that United's director of goalkeeping Zach Thornton reached during his 16-year career. Raised in Edgewood, Md., Thornton played collegiately at Loyola College in Maryland and excelled for the Greyhounds in both soccer and lacrosse. During Major League Soccer's infancy, Thornton was a part of the 1996 MLS Inaugural Player Draft that included future Black-and-Red legends Raúl Díaz Arce and Richie Williams. The New York/New Jersey MetroStars selected Thornton with the 69th overall pick and he headed to the Big Apple to get his professional career underway and start his apprenticeship under USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola.
Two years later, the Chicago Fire joined the league and selected Thornton in the 1998 MLS Expansion Draft. He was an integral part of the Fire as they stormed to an MLS Cup victory in their inaugural season with Thornton being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. He won the title of best goalkeeper in the league again in 2009 in addition to earning two MLS Best XI selections (1998, 2009) in his career.
Thornton went on to win one MLS Cup (1998), one Supporters' Shield (2003), three Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups (1998, 2000, 2003), one Eastern Conference Championship (2003) and one Western Conference Championship (1998) while breaking numerous categorical records for goalkeepers.
Assistant coach Chad Ashton
Chad Ashton has been a familiar face on the Black-and-Red sidelines since he joined the coaching staff in 2007. The tenacious midfielder made a name for himself in the Major Indoor Soccer League, where he caught the eye of the Dallas Burn. The Burn ended up selecting Ashton 18th overall in the 1996 MLS Supplemental Draft. Ashton went on to make 23 appearances for Dallas and scored one goal in his only season in Major League Soccer—a goal against D.C. United at historic RFK Stadium on July 7, 1996. After joining the Black-and-Red coaching staff prior to the 2007 season, Ashton played a major role in leading United to one Supporters' Shields (2007) and two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cups (2008, 2013).
Ashton has plenty of offseason experience building United's rosters and will hope to assist the coaching staff in finding adequate reinforcements in this year's SuperDraft.