- Associated Press - Monday, November 29, 2010

WASHINGTON | When D.C. United and U.S. national team midfielder Ben Olsen retired as a player almost exactly a year ago, it was noted that his Major League Soccer club was looking for a head coach.

“I am in no way ready for that role,” Olsen said at the time.

Well, he’d better be ready now.

As of Monday, the 33-year-old Olsen is the youngest permanent head coach in MLS history, getting the job after a 12-game stint on an interim basis at the end of last season. United gave Olsen a new three-year contract.

“This last six months really proved to me that I have the capabilities of leading this group going forward,” Olsen said, “so probably sometime in the last six months, I decided this is the route I want to go.”

Long a fan favorite during his playing days, he was the MLS rookie of the year in 1998 and helped United win the MLS Cup in 1999 and 2004. He was the MVP of the 1999 championship game, a two-time league All-Star, and played 37 games for the U.S. from 1998-2007.

He became an assistant coach for United after announcing his retirement in November 2009, then was promoted in August, when the team fired Curt Onalfo in the midst of a 6-20-4 season, the worst record in MLS in 2010 and worst in United history. The team went 3-8-1 under Olsen, and United president and CEO Kevin Payne publicly ruled out the possibility of retaining him for 2011, citing a lack of experience.

“I knew all along he was bluffing,” Olsen said with a smile, drawing laughter from Payne, before adding: “I was hoping he was bluffing.”

When Payne decided to offer him the job, Olsen said, “I was surprised. I was. I was fully prepared to … go back into an assistant coach role and continue learning the trade.”

So what changed?

Well, for one thing, Payne said Monday, he was persuaded by Olsen to keep an open mind. United held what Payne characterized as “serious conversations” with “at least a half-dozen candidates” — he declined to name any of them — before he and general manager Dave Kasper decided to stick with Olsen.

“Particularly in recent weeks, we more and more often got back to saying that a lot of the really critical qualities that we thought were necessary, Ben had in abundance,” Payne said.

As for whether Olsen is ready for his first full-fledged head coaching job, Payne said: “There’s no question that Ben already has grown. … He has an enormous amount to learn before he gets to the level of the elite coaches in our league. But I think he knows that, and he’ll learn those things. … Good coaches learn something every year. Every day, for that matter. I think Ben will be one of those guys.”

Olsen and Payne both painted a rosy picture of where things stand for United, which they insisted had too much youth and too many injuries to overcome last season.

“We’re not as far off as our record indicated,” Olsen said.

He’ll play a part in improving the roster, and figures that having so recently been a player in MLS will help with the evaluation process. Payne said Olsen was a driving force behind United’s trade last week for midfielder Dax McCarty, for example.

“I’ll have a huge role in that,” Olsen said. “This is my team. It’s my job on the line now.”

And he knows he has plenty of work to do.

He has two assistant coach positions to fill, including a replacement for the departing Mark Simpson, who worked with the team’s goalies.

There’s also the matter of upgrading the talent overall, particularly up front: United scored a league-worst 21 goals in 30 games last season.

Olsen vowed to have United return to an “entertaining” brand of soccer — the way the club played when he was wearing cleats and a uniform not all that long ago, instead of the dark suit and tie he sported Monday.

“In 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,” Olsen said. “But I feel somewhat calm and excited and ready to get moving. I do feel a weight on my shoulders, because I love this club, and it’s been a big part of my life, and I want it to succeed.”


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