PHILADELPHIA — Back in his playing days with D.C. United, Ben Olsen relished the chance to test himself when European giants came across the pond. Sure, the friendlies didn't count in the standings. But no matter the stage, going head-to-head with world-class talent is a special experience.
Now United's coach, Olsen on Wednesday will lead the MLS All-Stars against UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea FC at PPL Park. Joining him for the festivities at the Philadelphia Union's home on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, Pa., will be United attackers Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius.
The circumstances aren't ideal, as Olsen led just two light training sessions with the thrown-together squad. Still, the spectacle figures to be a memorable occasion.
"As a player, I always loved those moments," Olsen said. "As a coach, it's a little bit different. I'm not here to overcoach — I'm here to facilitate and give guidelines so we can have a chance to succeed against a great team. But it's not an easy task. You have 48 hours to get a team on the same page, and hopefully we'll click."
While Olsen's roster is loaded with talent from around the league, including international icons David Beckham and Thierry Henry, as well as MLS stalwarts Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski, the presence of De Rosario and Pontius gives him welcome familiarity.
It's the seventh All-Star selection for De Rosario, the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player who leads the league with 10 assists. In 2006, it was De Rosario who scored to give MLS a 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Blues' only other All-Star Game appearance.
"You approach it like you approach any other game," said De Rosario, who was appointed the All-Stars' captain by Olsen. "All of us are professionals, we all want to compete, we all want to win. At the end of the day, I think that's our goal and our objective. We know we're going out there representing our teams, ourselves and this league, and you want to have a good performance."
Pontius, on the other hand, is making his All-Star debut.
Although De Rosario, 34, was chosen via the fan-voted First XI, Pontius got the nod as one of Olsen's selections.
The honor comes after the 25-year-old came back from a broken leg in September and an early-season benching to score nine goals.
"I'm just trying to take everything in and enjoy it," Pontius said. "It's good in the sense that there's not three points on the line when we're stepping out there. Obviously, the level of competition is very, very good, so it's a good test."
As in any All-Star Game, the mishmash roster unearths some unique connections. For Pontius, his All-Star experience has been made all the more special by the presence of longtime friend Dan Kennedy, a fellow UC Santa Barbara product and Southern California native.
"I'm really going to enjoy playing with [Pontius] tomorrow," said Kennedy, goalkeeper for Chivas USA. "And I like playing against him too — there's always something to prove."
Of course, handling De Rosario and Pontius will be the easy part for Olsen.
Managing the minutes of other coaches' prized assets, on the other hand, is a bit trickier, considering MLS play returns to action Friday.
"After talking to every coach and every agent, that almost becomes the toughest part of this deal — to try to make everybody happy," Olsen said. "But I think we found a pretty good balance. Part of the experience is picking players and playing fantasy soccer within our league, which is also a great exercise for a young coach."
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