Ben Olsen is the constant in D.C. United’s season of change

Not long after D.C. United finished a recent practice and the Wayne Rooney-induced media circus left the premises, a few team staffers remained. In the summer heat, they hopped into cars to return to team offices less than a mile from the training field.

Coach Ben Olsen, though, jogged back to RFK Stadium, the place that has been the club’s home base since the league began.

“I try to make sure I get demons out through exercise every day somehow,” said Olsen, still breathing hard and dripping sweat in a muggy room that begged for a breeze. “It’s important in this volatile gig to stay sane.”

RFK, built nearly 60 years ago, collects puddles when it rains, and the white paint chipping away creates recurrent black splotches on its facade. Its value lies in its history. And for almost all of D.C. United’s 22-year history at the beloved old multiuse facility, Olsen has been a main character, beginning in 1998 as a player and since 2010 as coach. There’s the field where he scored a hat trick, the baseball dugout where he asked for the head coaching job and the office where he was offered the position. This was, and still is, his club and his city.

Saturday night, in a rejuvenated neighborhood of the city about three miles’ walking distance down the Anacostia River from RFK, a new chapter will begin. Olsen, 41, will lead United into its first game at Audi Field, its long-awaited venue in Southwest Washington. It recently signed Rooney, the English soccer superstar, with an eye toward filling seats and, with improved results from the talent infusion, keeping them filled. But no person or place is more intricately tied to D.C. United’s history than Olsen.

“I get in the debate of how much does he mean to the club or how much does the club mean to him?” said Devon McTavish, a former teammate of Olsen and the color analyst for United broadcasts. “It’s twofold. Where would this club be without Ben?”

Natural choice

Over 12 years as a United player beginning in 1998, Olsen appeared in 221 games and won two MLS Cups. When ankle issues pushed him to retire after the 2009 season, he moved into an assistant coaching role and quickly became the interim head coach midway through the 2010 campaign.

At first, he just wanted to hold the fractured team together. Less than a year removed from his playing days, the 33-year-old inherited a struggling club and said he had “no business being in charge.” Olsen was a well-liked leader in the locker room, but it didn’t seem enough to prepare anyone for managing a staff and players who doubled as close friends.

Teammates nonetheless saw Olsen as the natural choice. Who else should become the new leader for a team seeking inspiration and energy? That was what Olsen embodied as a player. That’s what he continues to represent now.

Santino Quaranta, who played for United through much of the 2000s, described Olsen as a passionate, fiery competitor. He treated just-for-fun games and meaningful scrimmages the same. A few minutes into McTavish’s first training session as a rookie in 2006, Olsen made a two-footed tackle on McTavish.

“When I think about Ben Olsen playing, I think about a tremendous competitiveness, a tremendous commitment and just a desire to never stop competing until the final whistle,” said Dave Johnson, who has been the television voice of D.C. United since the club’s inaugural season in 1996.

As teammates, Alecko Eskandarian said he and Olsen would extend the contest to mealtime, balancing objects on their fingers or throwing straw wrappers into a cup from certain distances. Olsen was ultracompetitive in table tennis and described his game as “very high-level.” He’d battle teammates in the players’ lounge, and he still plays at RFK with another staff member after the team goes home.

In 2008, when Olsen returned from an injury layoff for a match, fans held four banners in the stands: one with a picture of a lion and Olsen’s No. 14; one with his first name and another with his last; and one that read, “Heart of a lion.”

But Olsen also won loyalty by embracing levity. Eskandarian created “Dress Like Ben Olsen Day” to mock how his playing partner didn’t put much thought into his outfits. He’d come to the locker room wearing something like old sweatpants with holes, a Phillies shirt, a baseball hat and high-tops — “just a mishmash that did not make any sense at all,” Eskandarian said, “but only Benny could pull it off.”

Olsen’s teammates said he’d often joke around, and maybe that helps his players relate to him. When asked last week whether Rooney passed the eye test at his first practice, Olsen said Rooney’s eyes are just fine. Olsen’s quick wit gives him a sense of still being “young and hip,” Quaranta said.

The team benefits from having a coach who understands, United midfielder Ian Harkes said. Olsen was part of the club when it was among the best in the league, so that gives players confidence that their coach knows what it will take to propel United back to that level.

“We talk a lot about tradition and the history that D.C. has,” said Harkes, whose dad, John, played in the club’s early years, overlapping with Olsen for a season. “[Olsen] was there for it, for the good and the bad.”

New expectations

When Olsen began his professional playing career with United, there were 12 teams in MLS, and only one — the now-defunct Miami Fusion — had its own stadium. Now there are 23 franchises with more on the way, 16 playing in modern, soccer-specific stadiums and a growing number with international stars and expanding payrolls.

D.C. United, long financially handcuffed by smaller revenue streams and an aging playing facility, is trying to keep up. Saturday’s unveiling of Audi Field and the expected D.C. debut of Rooney give United a rare chance to renew itself midway through a season. It has been a difficult one for the team and its coach.

Though United has made the playoffs four times under Olsen, it finished 2017 tied for the fewest points in MLS and has started slowly again this season, with a 2-5-7 record and a league-low 11 points through 14 games.

Olsen is accustomed to pressure; that’s the nature of his role, and he’s gained comfort with who he is as a leader. Although the last year-and-a-half has been rough, Olsen said there’s no sense of “doom and gloom” around the team. This weekend serves as an opportunity to welcome new standards.

“It’s time for different expectations around here,” Olsen said. “If Rooney brings that, fine. If the new stadium brings that, fine. I’m ready for that. I think we as a club are ready for that.”

Olsen has a hard time turning off the intensity that’s essential to his round-the-clock job. Maintaining a high-energy demeanor has become harder through the years, but he has his tricks: meditation and power naps.

These days, Olsen’s competitive energy is mainly directed toward his career. At home in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, the coach rides bikes with his three children, and they play games in a back alley. He lets his 7-year-old son, Oscar, win all the time. It’s less tiring that way, Olsen said, because Oscar is a poor loser — just like his dad.

Acting as the face of the program can be burdensome, humbling and wonderful, Olsen said. As for whether he’s done his job well, that part Olsen said is up for debate. United has not hoisted an MLS Cup in his coaching tenure, but he finds solace in knowing he’s done his best.

He’s been in this world of winning and losing since he was a kid. That’s one quality he thinks translated well from playing to coaching, that deeply rooted desire to win. Maybe that’s why he was right for this job at the club he loves.

“I rest in that no one can ever doubt what this club means to me,” Olsen said. “My connection to the past and my hope for the future is still second to none.”

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