By Clemente Lisi - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 21, 2010) US Soccer Players -- Ben Olsen found himself in a tight spot earlier this season after DC United coach Curt Onalfo was fired with just three wins in 18 league games. Olsen, the team’s assistant coach, had only been on the coaching staff a few months. Suddenly, he was in the hot seat and in charge of a club at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. What ensued was the continuation of an abysmal season – a tough proposition for a club traditionally used to winning – and a learning curve for Olsen in his first-ever stint as a head coach. To say that the past three months have been difficult is an understatement.
As a player, Olsen was on many winning sides in DC. A two-time MLS Cup champion, Olsen is on DC United’s all-time leader board in several categories: second in games played (221), minutes played (17,098) and game-winning goals (13). In all, he won eight trophies with the team, including the US Open Cup. The former midfielder was also named MLS Rookie of the Year in 1998 and USSF Humanitarian of the Year in 2003.
Olsen was also a key part of the US National Team. After making his debut in 1998, Olsen scored his first goal a year later in a friendly against Chile. At the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Olsen was part of the team that reached the bronze-medal game, before losing to Chile and finishing fourth. In 2005, Olsen was on the team that won the Gold Cup. He was also part of the 2006 World Cup team and played 51 minutes in the US’s final game against Ghana after coming in for Claudio Reyna. In all, Olsen collected 37 caps and scored six goals with the USA over a span of nine years.
A fan favorite during his playing days, Olsen was always greeted with standing ovations from the United faithful at RFK Stadium. Despite a tough season, Olsen remains a crowd-pleaser as coach – despite a bad season - for his loyalty and determination over his 12-year playing career. I caught up with Olsen ahead of this Saturday’s final regular-season game, where we discussed what it has been like to coach over the past year, what motivates him despite a losing record, and how the team plans to rebuild going into next season.You played with DC United for 12 seasons and coached them for a good chunk of this year. What does this club mean to you?
Of course, it has meant a lot to me to be part of this organization. It has been a wonderful feeling. It has been like a second family for me. I have been very lucky to play here since college. This is just a great club.
You retired last year and was named assistant coach to Curt Onalfo soon after that. Did you ever think you'd be coaching the team so quickly after Onalfo was fired midseason, the first time in franchise history that had occurred?
No, of course not. I never thought this would happen. When the club let Curt go, then it fell to me. Sometimes, when you’re not getting the results you want you have to go with a change.
Did you call Curt for any advice after he was fired or have you been out of touch with him?
I am in touch with Curt. He’s a great coach. No one here puts the blame on him. I learned a lot from him in the short time that I worked for him. It has been a trial by fire.
Who do you admire as a coach and have tried to emulate this season?
As players, the coaches we’ve had during our playing days influence us all. The ones who stand out for me are Bruce Arena, which should be a surprise to no one, and Thomas Rongen, to name two. They all had an influence on me. Having said that, I am my own man and make my own decisions. I’m my own guy. I’ve also been a player after retiring just last year, so I know how a player thinks. I’m not removed from the players like some coaches who’ve played a long time ago and forgot what it’s like to be a player.
How difficult has this past season been for you and the players and what motivates you to keep playing out the year even though you’re out of the playoffs?
We’ve been in this situation for a while. We get paychecks and we have a job to do. We have to respect the club and the fans. We have a job to do. It’s not easy, but it has to be done.
You have the interim coach tag for now. Do you want to be DC United’s head coach next season?
The club has already said they will hire a new coach for next season. Do I want the job? Of course, I do. I will be back next season and will work with whomever they hire. I’ve learned a lot this season and want to continue to learn. I will be here next year.
As we went over earlier, you had a great playing career, but what is it about being a coach that totally caught you by surprise? Anything?
It’s all been fresh and new for me. I don’t think surprise is the word. I’ve learned a lot. It has been a trial by fire. This was a great opportunity for me. It’s been a grind, but something that has taught me a lot.
This is Jamie Moreno’s last season. How important a player has he been for the city and United over the past 15 years?
He’s a legend here… ,period! He’s a huge part of this club, the Latin and Bolivian communities and everyone in the region. He is DC United. He’s been involved in every trophy this club has won. That says a lot about a player.
You are a licensed minister and presided over the wedding of former teammate Nick Rimando in 2005. Have you done any other weddings since then?
The truth is anyone can be a minister by filling out a form on the Internet. You could be a minister by filling out a form in three minutes. Nick and his wife were not particularly religious and asked me to do it. It was nerve-wracking, but I did it as a favor because they wanted a friend to officiate it. That’s all.
I see. Here I thought you were a really religious guy after reading about that. Are you at all religious?
No, not really. I don’t pray before games or anything like that. After this season, though, I probably should start.