VENTURA BEACH, Calif. -- For a club that finished dead last in the 2010 MLS points race, D.C. United sure has an intriguing team heading into the 2011 campaign.
The four-time MLS Cup champion features the league's most talked-about signing, Charlie Davies, the U.S. forward who joined on loan in his attempt to come back from a horrific 2009 auto accident. United also has 17-year-old midfielder Andy Najar, the reigning Rookie of the Year, who has put some adult muscle on his wiry frame. What's more, the revamped roster includes a host of other new faces, from gritty midfielder Dax McCarty to touted rookie center back Perry Kitchen to seasoned veterans in goalkeeper Pat Onstad, midfielder Fred and forwards Josh Wolff and Joseph Ngwenya.
Yet perhaps the most fascinating addition of all will be that of 33-year-old Ben Olsen, the youngest head coach in MLS, who has taken over the full-time job after serving in an interim role at the end of last season. The former United midfield stalwart wasn't expecting to get his big chance when his new gig was made official on Nov. 29, 2010.
"Even up to that point I thought there was no way I was getting this job," Olsen said on Wednesday as the team continued its 10-day spring training trip to Southern California. "I was fully prepared to go back to an assistant job. My mind was ready to do that, and I was hoping we'd get a coach sooner or later to start building this team. Because it's important to have that head coach before the offseason. That time is a crucial period in this league."
After interviewing several candidates for the coaching job, including new Borussia Mönchengladbach coach Lucien Favre, United decided Olsen was ready to take the plunge himself.
"We believed strongly that one day he would be our head coach when he was ready," general manager Dave Kasper said. "As we started to build our team for 2011, Benny was involved in all the conversations. He had a very good perspective on how to build this team. That was probably the deciding factor, his fingertip feel for building this team. He's a D.C. United guy, a perfect fit who understands the club and what we're all about. Guys are going to fight for him, and he's got a good connection. That's important in getting the most out of players."
He'll need to motivate the players if United is going to move up in the standings and challenge for a playoff spot. Judging from the team's 1-0 friendly win here against UC Santa Barbara on Tuesday night, D.C. is a work in progress. Davies had an uneventful 45 minutes in which he showed a willingness to use his body against defenders but got few chances to demonstrate whether his explosive speed has returned. (I'll write much more about Davies in an upcoming article.)
It was only an exhibition against a college team, but for me the standout United players were two teenagers: Najar, who had several devastating moves down the right wing, and Kitchen, the 18-year-old from the University of Akron whom United selected as the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Kitchen played more as a defensive midfielder in college, but he showed impressive instincts and positioning as a central defender on Tuesday.
If you're looking for this year's Tim Ream, an instant-impact rookie defender, then Kitchen is your man. When I mentioned him to Olsen, the coach grinned so much that I told him he seemed giddy.
Olsen picked up another good one in McCarty, the 23-year-old midfield general who helped lead Dallas to last year's MLS Cup final and has emerged as a depth prospect for the U.S. national team. Surprisingly, Dallas left McCarty unprotected for the expansion draft, and D.C. acquired him via a trade with Portland, which had selected him.
"He's just what we needed," Olsen said of McCarty. "He's a leader. He's got fire. He's a very good player, which people sometimes overlook with Dax. And he's got a chip on his shoulder, which I like. We've been missing that a bit at this club."
Whereas most players wouldn't be excited to move from a conference champion to a team coming off a last-place season, McCarty sounded extremely optimistic on Tuesday when talking about the season ahead and playing for Olsen.
"He was a guy I hated playing against, and as a player you respect that," McCarty said. "I look at myself the same way. Sometimes as midfielders your touch and passing won't always be there, but one thing he always brought was that desire and will to win that makes up for your poorer days technically. I'm looking forward to learning from him and seeing what he has to offer me as a coach."
That said, Olsen is realistic about what lies ahead. United is coming off an embarrassing season, having set club futility marks for points and goals. This is nowhere near the team that set a standard for excellence in the early days of MLS, winning titles under Bruce Arena, Thomas Rongen and Peter Nowak.
Olsen saw first hand last year how tough it can be for a head coach when he worked as an assistant to Curt Onalfo, who lasted only five months on the job before being fired. And while Olsen will surely get more time to succeed than Onalfo did, the new coach is under no illusions about the nature of the business.
"It's still about wins and losses, and if I'm not getting those then things happen," Olsen said. "I hope I'll have the time to rebuild. I don't like the word rebuilding, because in this league there are a lot of ways to bounce right back up. We have news guys and it takes a while to get everybody on the same page. I trust that I'll have that time, but I'm realistic. No one says you have three years to start winning. I want to start winning right away."
What Olsen has discovered is that there is a fraternity of American soccer coaches that is willing to share advice, even though they may compete hard on the field. Olsen cites Arena, Rongen and Nowak among his influences, and he adds that he spoke recently about the challenges of the profession with Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis.
Life isn't quite the same when you move from the playing to the coaching ranks, as Olsen has learned. There's less free time for him to do things such as the art and painting that used to occupy his attention away from the field. He and his wife, Megan, have two young children now, and the tasks of a coach can be all-consuming, especially at the start.
"I've been spoiled for my entire life," Olsen said on Tuesday with a laugh. "Now I have a real job for the first time."