Ben Olsen Was D.C. United's History on Display

After a decade in charge, Olsen is out at D.C. United, bringing an end to a unique era for a coach who was a visible link to the club's proud past and whose value wasn't only measured by results.
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Considering the cost of construction, it’s understandable that D.C. United’s owners were unable to splurge on additional luxuries and flourishes when constructing Audi Field. The new stadium’s allure is its location, dramatic sight lines and, to be frank, its existence. A couple planned features, like a second video board, didn’t happen. The roofing is incomplete. The facade is unremarkable in some areas and absent in others, and the extravagant appointments are minimal.

But championship banners are cheap by comparison. You need some nylon and a sewing machine. Audi Field has a perfect place for them too, across from the benches and TV cameras and above the west stands, and a tenant that’s won more major titles (13) than any team in MLS. Yet pre-pandemic, and after 18 months in business, Audi Field remained banner free. In fact, other than a few small plaques on a section of concourse wall that comprise United’s “Hall of Tradition,” some small, inscrutable graphics above the field-level suites and a few trophies displayed without fanfare around a gift shop that sells next to no commemorative or throwback merchandise, the references to the club’s glorious past were frustratingly absent.

“I don’t think the club cares about history here at all,” former D.C. coach Bruce Arena said last year after bringing the New England Revolution to the nation’s capital. “I don’t think there’s been much of a connection to the people that helped build United. There’s a great distance. … I should see Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno in the rafters somewhere. This club had a great tradition. That tradition you should see every time you walk in the stadium.”

There was an exception, of course. And Arena coached against it. Since the stadium opened in the summer of 2018, the most significant sign of tradition at Audi Field was a person: former United midfielder and long-time (until Thursday) head coach Ben Olsen. He signed with the club out of the University of Virginia in 1998, won numerous titles and accolades as a player and then took over as interim manager in the summer of 2010, less than a year after retiring. That interim appointment evolved into one of the most remarkable coaching tenures in American pro sports history, only because it was about so much more than wins and losses. Olsen managed to hold on to his position for a decade despite posting a losing overall record and despite earning more last-place finishes (two) than trophies (one).

There were sound reasons for this. Olsen’s sense of timing was excellent. Each time it appeared the bottom was about to fall out, he would rally. While D.C. was mired in its historically horrendous 2013 league campaign, Olsen was able to maintain hold of the locker room and steer the team toward a U.S. Open Cup title. The following season, with the leash shortened, he was named the league’s Coach of the Year. Then after finishing at the foot of the Eastern Conference in 2017, he handled Wayne Rooney’s arrival with dexterity and presided over an exciting 11-2-4 run. It coincided nicely with the opening of the new stadium. For every stat that skewed negative (the record), there was a counterpoint (five playoff berths in the past six seasons, for example).

More importantly, as so much changed in MLS and around the club, from rapid expansion and increased attention to the more local pursuit of a new stadium, Olsen remained the faithful constant. The D.C. dynasty days faded away, new owners came and went and the club’s place on a shifting national landscape was increasingly undefined and uncertain. But Olsen held fast. He was D.C. United. That’s evident through statistics—according to Opta, Olsen played in or coached an incredible 71% of the MLS games in DCU’s 25-year history—and it’s obvious to anyone who’s paid an ounce of attention to MLS or Washington sports over the past two decades.

Ben Olsen is out as D.C. United coach

The reasons for the community’s affinity for him are numerous, starting with the swashbuckling skill of his early years as a winger to his post-injury reinvention as a tenacious central midfielder who willed himself to a World Cup. But his off-field persona was just as endearing. Olsen was astute, hilarious, eloquent and devoid of cliches. He became a spokesman, then an icon, and while his popularity insulated him against some rough early returns as manager, it also shielded ownership from additional scrutiny and criticism. They watched as Olsen, ever faithful, committed himself to shepherding one of MLS’s more modest rosters through an era of increased league-wide spending and expectation (Rooney notwithstanding). He received criticism for a lack of free-flowing football and sophisticated tactics. But he often got the best out of what he was given, and his job description arguably was more complex than most managers around the world.

That’s because, again, Olsen was D.C. United. He was the history on display at Audi Field. He was the media relations department, always willing to provide the quote, angle or observation necessary to do a story on an issue or about a club that remains reluctant to engage the press. He embodied United’s community relations as a devoted District resident who spoke out, engaged with local causes and embraced his surroundings as a common but uncommon citizen, from attending cultural events (or participating in them as a painter) to playing pick-up soccer with locals. As United floundered or flourished in the standings, as it chased (then opened) its new stadium, and as it struggled to figure out what sort of club it’s going to be as MLS continues to grow, Olsen was the face of it all.

He did an enormous amount of heavy lifting, albeit as a labor of love. He was no mercenary. Instead, every result and narrative twist during each and every season was deeply personal, reflecting or wearing on him as the keeper of the United flame. But even he agreed Thursday night that his time as coach had run out. United has hit ruts before, but nothing like what we’ve seen in 2020. Olsen’s teams could always be counted on to be tough to play against, at least. That no longer was the case. Recent defeats have been blowouts. Direction was lost. Confidence was sapped.

“It is now time for a change,” Olsen said in a written statement. “It is the right move. The club needs a new face and this is the right time for the club and also for me personally to move in a different direction.”

United’s owners and many D.C. fans will hope that direction doesn’t take him too far from Audi Field. He has a clause in his contract, which lasts through 2021, that affords him another role within the organization. United should offer him a job for life, perhaps doing all the things he used to do in addition to trying to manage the first team. His presence, and the tradition he embodies, is that valuable. Because without that, what is United? It’s been a club that for whatever reason, has been reticent to market its past and its place in American soccer history. It’s relied on Olsen instead.

Without him, and at least for now, D.C. becomes just another generic team in a parity-obsessed league that’s increasingly stocked with generic teams. The names, uniforms, rosters and coaches, minus a couple of exceptions here or there, are interchangeable, forgettable and diluted by expansion and the lemming-like rush to conform. Every game largely looks the same. And since the standings are so tight and just about everyone makes the playoffs, none of those games really matter. A few clubs can boast something that makes them truly stand out. For D.C. United, both by choice and circumstance, that something had been Olsen. There’s been no one like him in league history. Now, United risks slipping back into the anonymous MLS morass unless it finds another way to celebrate and hawk its tradition and identity, or unless there’s a massive investment in the roster next season.

In MLS, it clearly pays to look, sound and play like everybody else. Olsen is an original, and for that he was simultaneously rewarded with uncommon job security and exploited by owners whose vision was more about building a stadium than about who’d be inside it. He may not have been the best coach. But he was United’s soul, and he’ll be remembered for being a passionate club and community servant who stood out in a vanilla league.