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Olsen steers DC United's turnaround

LEADING THE CHARGE
D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen has led the club's recent turnaround.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The love came cascading down from the upper deck, echoing through a quickly emptying stadium.

“Bennie Olsen!” Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.

“Bennie Olsen!” Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.

On and on they chanted the name of their head coach. Of the man who had returned Major League Soccer’s fallen giant, D.C. United to the playoffs following a four year drought. Who had guided them through to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2006, deftly outmaneuvering the New York Red Bulls and their payroll more than thrice that of United’s. The team’s hardcore fans, who had braved a 6-hour bus-ride or a crippled public transportation system and a Nor’easter on consecutive nights, showered him with their affection and gratitude. As he always did, Ben Olsen walked some way in their direction, brought his hands together over his head, and clapped back at them in thanks. The old warrior was now the general. And he had led them to a nervy 2-1 aggregate win over two legs, gesticulating wildly all the while, barking instructions at his troops, his face intense and urgent.

Traditionally, Benjamin is the name given to a youngest son. Fittingly, after 13 seasons in the D.C. United midfield, the recently retired Ben Olsen was named the club’s interim manager at just 33 in Aug. 2010, having served a mere half season as an assistant and apprentice following the dismissal of Kurt Onalfo. He took on full-time duties before the 2011 season and slowly set about rebuilding a club that resoundingly dominated MLS in the late ‘90s and mid-2000s but had since lost its way.

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Olsen was an old-fashioned working class hero as a player, a gritty midfielder who overcame his modest 5-foot-8 stature by making it subservient to his hunger and will to work. He now sports the well-tailored uniform of the bright young manager – tight suit, skinny tie, cashmere sweater, thick beard. But his team is more a reflection of his spitfire character as a player: hard-nosed, hard-working, never-say-die.

“They say that good teams acquire the character of their coaches and this team has acquired his character,” said United club president Kevin Payne. “They never quit, they don’t care what is put in their way. They find a way.”

“We’ve got some guys with real character,” explained Olsen. “And you start to add up enough guys with character and things tend to go right for ‘em.”

United narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season, Olsen’s first, going 9-13-12 (W-L-T). This year, they posted a 17-10-7 record, their first winning season since 2007. This was all the more remarkable for the season-ending injury to star forward Dwayne De Rosario, who went down with a sprained knee ligament in mid-September while on national team duty with Canada. United went 5-0-2 thereafter, surging to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference and, crucially, avoiding the late 0-5-1 fade that had cost them the post-season a year earlier.

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But on his role in his side’s success, Olsen is coy. “I wish I could tell you I sprinkled a little bit of this and I sprinkled a little bit of that and they became this well-oiled, gelled, spirited team,” he said. “But, lookit, it’s a good group. It’s a group of guys who are willing to fight and back each other up and they’re selfless. That as a base is very positive.”

“That foundation is very important for us to get right here at D.C. United because we haven’t had it for a while.”

Assistant coach Josh Wolff argues Olsen is a strong judge of character. “There are tangibles that are necessary in our league,” he said. “But there are some intangibles there that Bennie exemplified every day as a player and certainly as a coach and if you don’t have those things you’re not going to be on this team.”

A playing style that suits the athleticism and high work-rate of its squad has also been bedrock to United’s success. Playing in a de-facto 4-3-3 with a midfield triangle of two holding and one attacking midfielders, two out-and-out wingers, a target man and wing backs who push high upfield, United has given opponents fits with their speed and movement.

After De Rosario went down, Olsen had no choice but to get more defensive. But in United’s 3-1 loss in the first leg of the Eastern Conference finals against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, he and his deserve credit for taking the game to their opponents once more. They did it without De-Ro, suspended academy jewels Andy Najar and Bill Hamid, and Chris Pontius, the team’s other star forward, who came off when he re-aggravated an injury not 15 minutes into the game.

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It was a gutsy, all-or-nothing assault on a much-favored opponent that spoke to the character of a majestic club reinvented through moxy and steel. Olsen’s feat is thus underpinned by a realization that those assets are the lone tools for United to compete, now that it finds itself playing in a league where richer teams have spent their way to the fore.

“We’re a fiery bunch,” says Wolff. “On paper we’re not the most talented but that doesn’t matter because we play with character and we play for each other and that’s what [Olsen] has instilled in us.”

United is a long shot to survive Sunday’s second leg. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of Olsen’s accomplishment. At just 35, there is more to come from the youngest son.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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