Game changer: Ben Olsen made a smooth transition to coach

Ben Olsen was an assistant under Curt Onalfo in 2010 before taking over as coach after United struggled to a 3-12-3 start. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)Ben Olsen was an assistant under Curt Onalfo in 2010 before taking over as coach after United struggled to a 3-12-3 start. (Andrew Harnik/The Washington Times)
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Every time Ben Olsen steps onto the practice field, he knows he can still play. No doubt about it.

While his gait remains hampered by the scarred ankles that ultimately cut short his playing career, the former D.C. United midfielder still showcases the crisp passing and aggressive tackling that helped make him one of the most celebrated players in club history, even bagging the occasional highlight-reel goal as well.

“Then I wake up the next morning,” Olsen said with a wry smile, “and have trouble walking down the stairs.”

It’s not conventional coaching, for sure. Then again, it’s safe to say convention isn’t what the United front office expected out of the 34-year-old when it made him the youngest coach in MLS after the organization’s tumultuous 2010 campaign.

Although United came back from a franchise-worst 6-20-4 mark to go 9-13-12 in Olsen’s first full season, the team still missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year. As he puts it, “I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

It’s an on-the-job education that will resume Saturday, when United host Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium to kick off their season.

“It’s a pretty consuming job, but it’s also very enjoyable in the way I’m still in the locker room, still a part of the team,” Olsen said. “There’s really nothing that substitutes that, the feeling of working together and getting results. I’d like to have that feeling a lot more this year.”

A special relationship

Olsen debuted for United in 1998 as a tireless, floppy-haired winger out of the University of Virginia, earning Rookie of the Year honors. Fierce on the field with humbled charisma off it, he quickly became a fan favorite. Once the need for countless ankle surgeries largely robbed him of his signature speed, Olsen reinvented himself as a gritty defensive midfielder, leaning on his fiery leadership, positional savvy and on-the-ball smarts.

When all was said and done, the physically unassuming 5-foot-8 player from Middletown, Pa., won two MLS Cups, in 1999 and 2004, claiming the Most Valuable Player trophy for the first triumph. Internationally, he represented the United States at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

“As a player, he got accepted real quick for all the qualities that I think now make him a great coach,” said Thomas Rongen, United’s coach from 1999 to 2001. “He was honest, hard-working, had great respect toward the game and opponents and teammates, and a very keen understanding of how to lead by example.”

After his retirement in November 2009, Olsen became an assistant under new coach Curt Onalfo. Following a 3-12-3 start, however, Onalfo was dismissed the subsequent August. Looking to invigorate a frustrated fan base, United gave the reins to the ever-popular Olsen on an interim basis, just eight months after he hung up his boots.

“It was always in the back of my mind,” Olsen said of the transition to a coaching career. “When I came on board [as an assistant], my vision was of a couple years of really learning the craft. That wasn’t my path.”

While the results only marginally improved, it was clear in the team’s energy that Olsen’s heart had rubbed off on his players. At season’s end, he was handed the full-time gig. For all the statistics and accolades Olsen compiled in 12 years patrolling the D.C. midfield, it was the intangibles that made him a cult hero among the United faithful — or, as they have now declared themselves, “Olsen’s Army” — and a fitting candidate to right the club’s ship.

“He knows how to make an atmosphere where guys want to fight and challenge themselves and challenge their teammates,” goalkeeper Bill Hamid said. “You saw that as a player, and now you see it as a coach.”

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