Ben Olsen has seen his career at D.C. United—and Major League Soccer—grow at an unprecedented rate. But there’s still work to be done.
A version of this interview first appeared in Issue 06 of Eight by Eight Magazine, which can be purchased here.
At just 38 years old, Ben Olsen has dedicated nearly half his life to D.C. United.
After signing with the club in 1998, Olsen claimed nine trophies during his 12 seasons operating in the heart of United’s midfield. But as the club’s results began to taper off in the late 2000s, so did Olsen’s legs, and so the Pennsylvania native brought his fiery brand of leadership to the sidelines. In 2010, with United in the depths of the Eastern Conference, Olsen was appointed manager of his beloved team. He was 33, the youngest-ever head coach in MLS history.
In Olsen’s appointment, the United faithful—starved of trophies and forced to watch bad football in the crumbling, monolithic RFK Stadium—finally had the most important ingredient for a shot at success: a leader who cared. But it wasn’t an easy road ahead. Olsen, by then a certified MLS legend and leader of “Olsen’s Army,” faced a monumental task: Restore the league’s most decorated team to its former glory.
Speaking in the early dash of the MLS season, in which a new, revived United has cruised to the top of the table [Editor’s Note: United finished the season in 4th place in the Eastern Conference and will host the New England Revolution at RFK Stadium on Wednesday night in the MLS Cup Playoffs.], Olsen spoke with Eight by Eight about the club’s ambitions, MLS’s stature in world football, and his transition into management.
Robert L. Kehoe III: D.C. United has come out with the best start in club history, so where do you think you’re at in terms of personnel, chemistry, and managing short-term success with the long-term objectives for the season?
Ben Olsen: In some ways my goals have changed over the years. Winning an MLS Cup is the ultimate objective, but putting ourselves in position to win championships consistently is the key. We’ve had too many ups and downs in the past decade. Obviously we’re on an upswing right now, but we haven’t won an MLS Cup in a long time, and we’re under no delusions that we’ve accomplished anything.
RK: You were a part of some of those MLS Cup wins a long time ago, so how do you compare this group to D.C. United teams of the past?
BO: Well, I’m very proud of the identity we’ve established. We have some savvy, combined with the grit and determination you need to achieve positive results when you don’t play your best. You always have to find a balance with how many piano players and piano carriers you can put on the field.
RK: You’ve been with the club for a very long time, so is there anybody involved who’s been around longer than you and can provide the same kind of perspective?
BO: Ahhh, not any more. There are some up in the front office who have been around for a while, but I think I’m the longest standing member at this point. Now look, everybody knows this club means a lot to me. For significant portion of my life it’s been my second family. The city and fans have given me a lot, and some of the best moments of my have been wearing the black of D.C. United.
RK: Thinking about that in light of the early D.C. United teams, there were a lot of piano players, with Etcheverry, Moreno, Sanneh, Pope, and so on. As a player and now as a manager, do you ever feel like you’re living in the shadows of the past?
BO: Without a doubt, it’s a big shadow to live in. There was definitely a time where we were stuck in that shadow, but I think there is a healthy separation at this point. But MLS has changed so much, so it’s very hard to compare what took place in the ’90s with what’s going on today. Now increased television and media exposure, along with some of the stars coming over, have all made the league so much better, more recognizable and more global.
RK: Now you as a manager are very influenced by your time on the field, so what are your fondest memories as a player at the college, club or international level?
BO: One of the biggest moments for me was coming to D.C. United, having Bruce [Arena] put his trust in me by talking the league into letting me leave Virginia, pulling me out of school and putting me into an environment where I could be successful. I have no idea where my career goes if I started out with a club that wasn’t as well oiled as DC United. So going to D.C. United was crucial for me, setting the right foundation that’s brought me all the way to a head-coaching job.
RK: Now nobody wants one of the best players in national team history to get injured in a crucial World Cup match, but what were you thinking and feeling when Claudio had to come off against Ghana in 2006 and you were called on to replace him?
BO: Yeah, it’s what we all want, right? To play at the highest level that you can. I always joke with people about being a part of that team in 2006 that I was the guy running behind the plane leaving for Germany, catching the wheel and sneaking on as it was taking off.
I really felt like that in a lot of ways. I mean, I felt like I deserved to be there, but I knew it wasn’t the end of the world if I wasn’t, and there were some other guys who could have just as easily have been in my place. So I definitely wanted to enjoy the fact that I was at the pinnacle of the game, and I really did. As a lot of guys will tell you, there’s nothing like being a part of the World Cup, which is absolutely true. To step on the field for even a second at the greatest tournament on the planet was special. Obviously I wish we would have faired a bit better, but it was still a remarkable experience for me.
RK: Where do you think MLS stands in relationship to other leagues?
BO: I think the level of play in our league is more balanced than what you see in Europe. Now in terms of how we stack up against the big dogs, there are some pretty untouchable leagues. But I think we’re starting to creep into the conversation when you’re talking about fourth, fifth, or sixth best league in the world. Are we there for sure, or will we get into the conversation at the top? I don’t know, because as we grow everybody else is growing too.
RK: What about “untouchable” clubs, as compared with, say, the lower end of the table in England, Italy, or Spain? Do you think MLS teams are getting to a place where they could be competitive in that mix?
BO: Anybody can step out on the field and compete, but with the amount of money those clubs are spending, it’s a tall task. I mean, just look at the Mexican league—which spends maybe five or six times more than we do—and the recent CONCACAF [Champions League] results would say that they still have a better league. There’s always going to be some quality that goes along with what you spend.
RK: As a player you can take care of problems and impact the game immediately. So how did you handle the transition to management?
BO: I can tell you firsthand that just because you’ve played, it doesn’t make you a good coach. Especially if you go straight from playing to coaching—you might not be prepared from an education standpoint to really jump into the fire, so you really have to take your lumps.
There wasn’t anything I had in my bag of tricks that made me a very good coach, so I’ve really grown in every aspect. I think my man-management skills are better. I think I’m better at understanding and communicating the game tactically, including in-game and halftime adjustments. I think I understand what I want from my team emotionally, and how I see them forming their identity.
RK: What do you want people to say about Ben Olsen whenever your time with the club is all said and done, whenever that may be?
BO: [Pauses] That he wasn’t an asshole. I’m not joking. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I ever got in life: Just don’t be an asshole.