WASHINGTON, D.C. – Among the frames that line the painted cinder block hallway leading to D.C. United’s RFK Stadium locker room is one that features a 1999 spread from ESPN The Magazine. The headline reads "The United Way." The full-page photo centers on second-year midfielder Ben Olsen, whose long dark hair is flowing behind him as he shields the ball from Cobi Jones. Next to it are the words, “D.C. United shows the MLS how to succeed.”
Across the hall hangs a 2008 photo of United fans with a banner reading, "Heart of a Lion." A massive "14," Olsen’s jersey number, flanks a rendering of the king of the jungle. From the days of D.C.’s dynasty through some leaner years and as Olsen’s career flowed (he played in the 2006 World Cup) and ebbed (he missed ’01 and ’08 with ankle injuries), he remained a United icon, a permanent part of the club’s identity.
On Monday, D.C. announced that Olsen, now in his fifth season as head coach, will stick around for several more years -- long enough to lead the team into its proposed new stadium.
Olsen, 37, could have been fired following a disastrous 2013 campaign that included an MLS-record three victories. Now, with United atop the Eastern Conference at 14-9-6, he’s the favorite to be named coach of the year. Olsen said his ties to the club, its fans and their city played a role in his survival, as well as his desire to remain in D.C going forward. His new contract will run through the 2019 season, according to The Washington Post.
“They stayed with me,” Olsen said of the club’s supporters. “There weren’t signs in the stadium [last year] saying ‘Fire Olsen.’ That’s a big deal. That means a lot because fans are powerful. I’m already indebted to them for the years of faith they’ve given me as a player, but it’s something I won’t forget.”
He continued, “I love this city. My children were born in Washington D.C. I don’t want to move. I told [managing general partner Jason Levien] in negotiations. I don’t want to move. I want to be here. I want to be a part of this club. I want my kids growing up in this city. It’s not the best negotiating tactic, but it’s true. From day one, I fell in love with this club.”
Olsen already is, by some distance, the longest-tenured coach in United history. Bruce Arena, Thomas Rongen, Peter Nowak (all of whom won an MLS Cup) and Tom Soehn each lasted three seasons. Olsen will get beyond his fifth because of what he’s already accomplished, because of what he means to an organization still hoping to secure a new home and because of the way he handled his biggest challenge. United didn’t implode in 2013. In fact, they maintained their nerve and won an unlikely U.S. Open Cup title.
“That Ben led a group of guys to go ahead and win the U.S. Open Cup after the adversity we faced in the league -- he kept the locker room together. He really kept the organization together with his leadership,” said Levien, who bought into the club in 2012. “His maturation as a coach is something we’re all going to benefit from.”
Levien also cited Olsen and GM Dave Kasper’s “cohesiveness and the way they really worked together” to rebuild the roster when discussing his decision to first retain, and then extend, his coach. The pair reached across the league and signed veteran players who were surplus to their former clubs, but who retained an ability and hunger to win. Fabián Espíndola (9 goals, 9 assists) is a darkhorse MVP candidate. Bobby Boswell and Sean Franklin have been sturdy in back, Chris Rolfe (6 goals, 6 assists) is a revelation in the attack and Davy Arnaud is a midfield workhorse who’s held the team together.
“You don’t have a eureka moment as a coach. At least I haven’t. Every year, every week, the education just continues,” he said. “I couldn’t lean on years and years of experience [when I started] to understand what was the right move. I was just constantly learning, and one lesson I suppose in all those lessons is you need good players. You need players that are competitive, have the right hunger, are team oriented. Because at the end of the day, they’re the ones out there.”
Now that D.C. has the talent and is playoff-bound, the next hurdle is the stadium. Levien said at Monday night’s announcement, which was attended by several United players and a throng of season ticket holders, that he expects the D.C. Council to vote on the Buzzard Point stadium package before the end of the year.
“We feel like we’ve got the support for a soccer stadium from the majority of the council,” Levien said. “Every week moving forward is critical toward getting that vote and making this a reality, and we’d really like to see a shovel in the ground in 2015.”
That will be Olsen’s 18th year with United.
“Part of me feels that this job is a duty because of my history with this club. I’ve grown into this job. I’ve grown into dealing with, I think, the emotions of the game -- the turbulence of it. I’ve got a long way to go as a coach but I’ve surrounded myself with the right people and will continue to grow,” he said. “We get caught [looking] at the past a lot here and I think the future is bright and with this stadium, it only helps the team. It helps what we can do and the product we can put on the field. I’m excited about the next couple of months and hopefully getting some good news on that front and I’m excited to get into the playoffs … there’s a lot to be excited about right now.”