Thursday, March 17, 2011 2:44 PMBy Dave Johnson
It may be clich, but it is true. It seems like only yesterday that Ben Olsen was in the land of Disney. The year was 1998 and Olsen, a fresh-faced rookie out of the University of Virginia, was in Orlando for the MLS All-Star Game.
Olsens drive and determination was already evident as he played in an important role in D.C. United making its third consecutive MLS Cup appearance later that fall. It was the start of a magical ride for Olsen as a player. His commitment to the game and club was something that could be felt by Uniteds loyal supporters.
Two MLS Cup titles were among the trophies that would follow for Olsen, but his career was not something out of a Walt Disney fantasy. Instead Olsen had to deal with the challenges and setbacks that are a part of the reality of professional soccer. As a player, Olsen accomplished much and without injuries may have accomplished even more.
1998 has turned into 2011 and Olsen is now D.C. Uniteds head coach. After retiring in 2009, the feisty midfielder wasn't supposed to be on the fast track to a head coaching gig. Olsens rookie season as an assistant coach was interrupted when his friend, and United head coach Curt Onalfo, was fired after a 3-12-3 start. Olsen was elevated to the top position and went 3-8-1 as United finished a dismal 2010 campaign with a 6-20-4 record.
Now it is Olsens job and he can make it his team. What Olsen lacks in coaching experience, he makes up for with his soccer experiences. Along with the joy of helping United add to its trophy collection, Olsen also had to deal with the pain of having his career threatened by injury.
Just two and half years removed from that Orlando All-Star experience, Olsen was on the sideline by himself trying to come back from an ankle injury suffered playing on loan at Nottingham Forest in the winter of 2001. There were doubts he could ever return to the form that had seen Olsen labeled as one of America's most promising young talents.
Olsen did make it back and, after winning his second MLS Cup title in 2004, was back with the U.S. National Team at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Olsen proved he could reconstruct his career, experience the 34-year-old will lean on as he tries to reconstruct United.
Like Olsens coaching career, the teams reconstruction might be on the fast track. MLS is a league of opportunity and unpredictability. The past can be forgotten quickly and United is hoping several off-season additions will make forgetting the past possible.
By adding midfielder Dax McCarty and forward Charlie Davis, United has two players with National Team pedigree. McCartys grit and guile helped FC Dallas to last years MLS Cup and has already earned him the captains armband with United.
Davies' is a remarkable story as he returns - on loan from French side Sochaux - to the city where he almost lost his life. In preseason Davies demonstrated that his physical wounds from a near fatal car crash on the GW Parkway in 2009 have healed to the point where he can again make a difference on the field.
To go with Davies, United also added proven goal scorers Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwneya. Wolff is another player with a National Team history, while Ngwenyas scoring touch helped the Houston Dynamo capture some silverware late last decade. Suddenly a team that finished last in MLS with just 21 goals in 2010, has attacking options.
While United looks brand new up top, there has also been a rebuild at the back, where Perry Kitchen is set to start in central defense. Kitchen, the number three overall pick this year from Akron, has already displayed a maturity beyond his years and - along with his skill - has demonstrated an ability to organize the defense.
Kitchen likely will be partnered in the middle of the back line with Dejan Jakovic, who entering his third year with United is now the elder statesmen of the defensive corps. On the outside Jed Zayner, who finished last year with United and new acquisition Daniel Woolard will likely figure in the first eleven.
Woolard has been competing with Marc Burch for the starting spot at left back. Woolard played three seasons with the Chicago Fire before playing in the United Soccer League last season including time with the Carolina RailHawks. United is younger and, hopefully, healthier at the back.
By design United is also younger in goal with 20-year old Bill Hamid set to begin his first season as Uniteds first choice keeper. In reality, 43-year old goalkeeping coach Pat Onstad could see time on the field until Hamid is fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery.
The real questions for United might be in midfield, but not necessarily in a bad sense.
United is probably deepest in the midfield. McCarty looks to be the driving force in the center of the park and 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year Andy Najar and Chris Pontius are likely to patrol the flanks even though both have the ability to play up front.
Olsen still has several players with starting experience to choose from to complete his midfield including Branko Boskovic, Santino Quaranta, Clyde Simms, Kurt Morsink and Fred. In short, some tough decisions will have to be made by Olsen when he fills out his team sheet.
Boskovic has led his country Montenegro to the top of its World Cup qualifying group and has shown flashes with United. Still, Boskovic has yet to put it all together on this side of the Atlantic, though he had impressive moments playing wide in preseason.
While MLS is a league of opportunity, it could be argued that the competition is also getting stiffer. There are new teams in Portland and Vancouver and as the league continues to grow in size and stature, so does the pressure to win.
United has the players to get back in contention, but will it be able to find the right mix?
Thats where Olsens coaching acumen will be tested. Uniteds pride has been dented and its confidence shattered, but Olsens heart will be beating on the sideline.
To United fans, Olsen will forever have the heart of a lion. There was that Sunday in June of 2008 when Olsen surprised the 35,000 plus at RFK when came back from a heel injury to play his first game of the season. Jubilant supporters unfurled a stadium section-wide banner that proclaimed Olsen as having the heart of a lion.
The crowd for that game was larger because David Beckham was in town with the LA Galaxy. But in the end, as one fan noted, Ben trumped Becks.
History has taught us to never to discount Ben Olsen.
The lion is eager to roar again.