WASHINGTON — In the modern age of professional sports, it’s rare anymore to find players who stay with a single team for all, or even the majority, of their careers. Even those who do are rarely involved any further upon retirement, other than as a dignitary. And for all the pomp and circumstance bestowed on Derek Jeter in his year-long retirement tour, no individual is more ingrained in his team’s history, its culture, its fan base, its past and its potential future than Ben Olsen.
The DC United coach recently got a contract extension, and will take his club — the one with which he played his entire career — to the MLS Playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference this weekend.
Olsen attended the University of Virginia, where he was named the 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year, and in 1998 entered Major League Soccer as part of Project-40, the Adidas-sponsored program that helps introduce top college talent into MLS. He’s has been a part of DC United ever since.
United rolled all the way to the MLS Cup finals in Olsen’s rookie campaign, won the title the next year, and once again in 2004. They won three Supporter’s Shields — given for the best overall record in the league — during his time on the field. With Olsen on the field, DC United became, as they proclaim at the bottom of each club press release, “the most successful professional soccer organization in the history of the United States.”
When Olsen returned from a serious injury in 2008, the soccer world got its first real insight into what Olsen meant to his club.
“The fans created that banner for that nationally televised game against the LA Galaxy that summer of 2008,” recalled DC United play-by-play man Dave Johnson. “Where it was a big thing of Ben Olsen and it said ‘Heart of a Lion.’ And so fans know where Ben’s heart is.
Then, when Olsen announced his retirement from the game unexpectedly in late October 2009, D.C. got its first glimpse of how much he meant to the city. The Washington Wizards ran a promotion in honor of his retirement, offering $14 tickets to a game, matching his jersey number.
But just a few short months after leaving the field, Olsen joined the coaching staff as an assistant for the 2010 season. When the team sputtered to a league-worst 3-12-3 start, head coach Curt Onalfo was fired, and Olsen took over as interim head coach. He was also brought in by the team’s executives to be a part of the search committee for a permanent head coach.
“Ben was actually part of the interview process early on,” said Dave Kasper, who has been with DC United since 2002 and the general manager since 2007. “He was just finishing his playing career and we said to him, ‘Look, we want you to join the coaching staff; we think you have a lot to offer. We want you to learn this craft, and possibly be considered one day to be coach, when you think you’re ready and when we think you’re ready.'”
That day came sooner than Kasper and DC United ownership expected.
“He came up to me one day and said, ‘Hey, why aren’t I being considered for this? I want this. I’m ready for this.’ Be careful what you ask for, right?”
In how many cities would a landmark restaurant actually change its name for a day to honor sports personality? That’s exactly what Ben’s Chili Bowl did, when it partnered with DC United to become Ben Olsen’s Chili Bowl for a promotion in March 2011.
Of course, it hasn’t been all roses for Olsen since taking over the helm.
After falling in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, the team struggled mightily last year. DC United’s 3-7-24 record was the worst the league had ever seen. But the fan base didn’t turn on Olsen.
“He was part of raising several trophies for this club, so they’re always
going to be behind Ben,” explained Kasper. “They certainly were last year, and obviously this year there’s a lot of joy among the supporters. He means a lot to them.”
Johnson echoed the sentiment.
“No matter whether they win three games like the year before, or are in the playoffs, again it gets back to people saying ‘I’m so happy for Ben Olsen,’ because they believe in him,” he said.
Olsen gave them one good reason to believe, in spite of the struggles, leading his team to a stunning string of five straight victories in the US Open Cup and defeating eventual MLS champion Real Salt Lake to take home the trophy.
“I’ve known Ben for close to 20 years now, and obviously got to know him very closely raising trophies with him while he was a player,” said Kasper. “Last year, even in a down year, to be able to win a trophy is a testament to Ben’s ability to keep a locker room in a positive frame of mind.”
Now, there is the matter of the MLS Playoffs, which begin for DC United on Sunday on the road in Harrison, New Jersey, against the hated New York Red Bulls, who defeated Sporting Kansas City Thursday night in the knockout round. United will host the Red Bulls in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals at RFK on Saturday, Nov. 8, at 2:30 p.m. Olsen and crew hope it’s the first step towards the club’s first MLS Cup in 10 years.
Of course, it would also be Olsen’s first MLS Cup as a coach, something that would only further cement his legacy with DC United and the sport at large. He’s quick to dismiss the larger question of whether this means any more to him given his roots with the team, but fully acknowledges what a championship would mean.
“It’s why I took this job, right?” he levels, and it’s more of a statement than a question. “It’s why I wanted to stay here. I want to bring a championship to this club. If that comes one day, that would be wonderful.”
But Olsen’s value to the club stretches far beyond his role as a motivator and tactician on the field.
“Ben is a guy who believes, who has believed in this club, who embraced it not just as a player, but whatever he could do to further the club’s advancement,” Johnson says. “So to that extent, he’s one of the fans as well. He’s Citizen Ben Olsen as well as coach and player Ben Olsen. That’s why he has the support he has.”
In the more distant, uncertain future, there is the prospect of a sparkling new home at Buzzard Point, ushering a new era of soccer into the city that turned out the most to support the most recent World Cup. There are dreams of filling that stadium every night with the next generation of fans, which will take an ever-expanding league still taking its financial lumps to one as established as the rest of the North American big four.
When DC United received a public hearing for its newly proposed stadium — a hearing that inconveniently took place on the same day as the US-Germany match during this summer’s World Cup — Olsen was the first person who stood up to speak on behalf of the team, explaining as only he could what such a facility would mean for his team, and for the sport of soccer in D.C.
“Why wouldn’t you want to have him speak first at a stadium hearing?” asked Johnson. “Because he’s not some coach that flew in from God knows where and is just here for some two- to three-year period of time. He’s raising his family here.”
Olsen’s wife, Megan, whom he married in 2006, is a middle school teacher in Takoma Park. They live with their three kids in Northwest D.C.
“I think since he left college, this is his new found home,” said Kasper. “We joke all the time, because I live in the suburbs and I fight traffic. But I know that wherever I go, I’m going to find a parking spot. Here, when we go out to lunch, when we’re out and about, I always say to him, ‘I can’t believe you live in the city, Ben. I can’t believe it.’ But he loves it. He’s part of the fabric of this club and he’s part of the fabric of this city.”
One way Olsen avoids the gridlock is by hopping on his bike each morning to ride down to RFK. On certain days, he can be spotted running the trails that wind through the city. He’s as much a part of D.C. as any fan who could one day fill a seat at that new stadium, or a legislator set to vote on its existence.
“We’re very lucky,” said Kasper. “We’re lucky to be in the position that our head coach is a big part of this city, that he truly cares. His kids are going to city schools. He’s paying taxes in this city. And he’s promoting this city.”
Next Saturday night, Olsen will stand on the sidelines as his club takes the first step toward the ultimate goal once again. With the golden past he helped forge and the thriving present he currently oversees, Olsen — player, coach and citizen — will guide DC United into its promising future.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated DC United lost in
the first round of the 2012 MLS Playoffs.