Olsen’s Tactics Under the Microscope

United manager uses psychological motivation tactic through the media
by Ross Brouillette   |   Wednesday, May 01, 2013

United Capitol – column on DC United (DCU) & the Washington DC/DMV area soccer scene.

DC United manager Ben Olsen isn’t stupid.

He went to the University of Virginia after all, an institution that has a tradition of excelling in both academics and soccer. His soccer IQ was groomed by one of the best managers in American soccer history, Bruce Arena, who is worthy of a Six Degrees of Separation game because of his connection to most American coaches.

Olsen knows what he’s doing when he’s talking to the media. He hasn’t clocked out just yet, and he's using his time with the press after games to try and better his squad with psychological tactics.

“I’m going to hold (the players) to very, very high standards,” said Olsen. “If it’s not working, we’ll make changes. But I believe in the group, but maybe it’s not the players on the field. Maybe it’s guys that are waiting. That’s all stuff we’ve got to figure out this week.”

This quote is designed to light a fire under the starters, while also alerting the reserves that their time may be coming and to hopefully create even more healthy competition in training. Notice that he also made sure to mention that he still believes in the roster in hopes of holding onto what’s left of team morale.

 “I’m going to put the players under a microscope,” he said. “We’ll see if that works because they were prepared. I trusted my staff to get these guys prepared.”

But were the players prepared? The first 15 minutes against Philadelphia on April 21 was the flattest United has looked in all its games of the season. The team didn’t look prepared to me. Passes were not crisp and confidence was absent. It truly was an uninspired performance that lacked sharpness. Movement was sluggish and DC looked like it was playing with heavy legs.

If by “prepared” he means he ran them into the ground then, yes they were prepared. It looked as if the team had played a midweek game, which leads me to believe they had a hard midweek or even end of the week training session.

I also wanted to point out from the quote above, Olsen states, “we’ll see if that works”, as if he hasn’t tried to motivate his squad through his interviews with the press or by chewing the team out after training; telling them the leaders need to stand up and be held accountable for. He’s done it before and now he’s doing it again.

Olsen is a “fire ‘em up” type of manager, a coach that relies on locker room speeches, pats on the back and pumps of his fist. He’s not one for much tactics, he’s only been a manager for 3 years since his fast track from assistant to head coach in 2010. He would probably still be an assistant had United been successful under Curt Onalfo. Olsen’s still only 35 years old after all and would most likely still be playing or just recently retiring had his ankles held up.

He is someone I like to call a motivation manager. He specializes in an aspect that the team shouldn’t have a problem with in the first place.

Who has trouble getting up for the first few matches of the season? And then after you lose a couple games, do you really need motivation to win? As a professional you should always want to win. That should be a characteristic that got you to this level in the first place.

“There was a sense of urgency 3 weeks ago,” Olsen said. “There should have been a sense of urgency the first week of the season. These are professional athletes and they should have urgency every time they step on the field.”

Sounds to me like Olsen is frustrated knowing that his players shouldn’t have trouble getting mentally ready, yet he feels he still has to motivate them even though it hasn’t worked in previous games. It’s one of his best characteristics as a coach and it’s neither working nor needed by him. It should be more up to the players to be up for the game so the manager can concentrate on tactics.

If you ask me, Olsen is spending too much time telling the players to “step up” when he should be teaching tactics to unlock teams that sit back with 10 players behind the ball soaking up the attack and countering. Word gets around in this league, and clubs in MLS know the formula to beating United.

Olsen knows other clubs have a proven game plan to beat his side and even jokes about it, calling it a recipe.

“I thought they (Union) obviously watched the New York game and said, ‘Here’s a recipe: sit back, counter, score. Sit back, counter, score.’ It’s what New York did.”

If you know other clubs can review match footage and see what the team the previous week did to beat you, it’s up to the manager to hold training sessions the week leading to the next match, working on what the team can do to unlock an organized defense with bodies behind the ball.

You can’t play the same style of soccer in the exact same formation because you were already found out, if you know a club is going to use similar tactics to the team that just beat you. If your style didn’t work against the counter attack team last weekend, it’s not going to work this weekend.

Olsen is the type that will have his team play in the same style every game for 90 minutes. There is a very high possibility that you will hear the words “just play your game guys, and let’s make them play our game." If you’re playing “your game” it’s most likely that you play one style of soccer and stick with it. That’s like a basketball team running the same play over and over again even though it didn’t work the last few times because the defense knows the play now.

It’s 2013. A manager in modern soccer needs to be able to change formations and tactics not only during the week in training, but also on the fly during games when for example you score a goal, get scored on, go down a man or even up a man. The days of sending out a 4-4-2 and saying play your game, keep the ball on the ground, pass and move and remaining like that the rest of the 90 are over.

If United goes down a goal and hasn’t scored yet with 15 minutes remaining in the match, there is no plan B. DC has no answer for a stingy defense that gets men behind the ball and then counters. This means if the black and red go down a goal, they have put themselves into a difficult situation with no way out.

When United finds itself in this situation it’s noticeable that it feels frustrated at having not scored yet and not knowing how to unlock the defense and a pressure of having to score, especially at home in front of their supporters who paid good money. Some of the players resort to hoofing the ball forward or trying too much on the dribble when they need to be more direct on the ground then spread the play out wide and whip crosses around fullbacks to the strikers.

“We start lumping the ball, and there is no need for that. We’re playing into our weaknesses instead of into our strengths,” said a visually-frustrated captain in Dwayne De Rosario. “It’s frustrating in all aspects of the game. I don’t want to say the wrong things, and I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I just can’t help it, and I don’t understand a lot of things that are happening. We have to find a way; we have to find an answer.”

Reevaluating Olsen

Maybe Olsen should take another long hard look in the mirror. He’s running back and forth between methods that haven’t worked in prior games so why not reevaluate him and his staff once again.

“I’ve looked at myself and them (staff), and now I’m going to hold (the players) to very, very high standards,” Olsen said.

He laid into the team in a post-training huddle before the New York Red Bulls match and DC was shut out at home for the first time in just over a year. DC United lost 0-2 to New York on April 13, 2013, and the last time DC didn’t score at home was April 7, 2012, against Seattle in a 0-0 draw.

He was always one of my favorite players because I was able to follow his career through college at UVA to his MLS Rookie of the Year in 1998 and then going on to win 2 MLS Cups and even 1 MLS Cup MVP. Though, he’ll say he didn’t deserve the MVP honor:

“It's nice to get the goal,” Olsen said. “I didn't think that I played that particularly well. Believe me. I'm not the MVP of this game.”

I’m an Olsen guy, the room in my house that I’m sitting and writing this in has an Olsen No. 14 DC United jersey hung up on the wall and it’s the only jersey I own with a name on the back and I have a few.

It wasn’t just that he played for 3 teams (UVA, United and USMNT) that I followed and for those 3 teams only (excluding the Nottingham Forest loan), but also his gritty and aggressive play that hooked me.

Olsen is a United legend, playing with DC and DC only, except for one short loan to Nottingham Forest, from 1998 to 2009. In 2010, he was already DC’s assistant manager, a bit accelerated if you ask me but I can see why, because he was a vocal veteran leader that also led with his play and with hard tackles to entice his teammates to match his intensity. He was a 2 for 1 captain; most only have one of those attributes.

Olsen should have gained vital experience by being an assistant for at least 4 years but Onalfo failed and Olsen was given the interim tag and the rest is history. Here we are in 2013 and Olsen would be in his third year of coaching as an assistant.

Experience can go a long way. It can keep you from learning on the fly like Olsen is at the moment. If you coach a lower level club or are an assistant, you can learn from the mistakes of the head coach. But if you’re a young manager, you learn from your own mistakes, which currently DC United is paying for.

Olsen still insists on playing a hardworking holding forward not known for finishing, who in my opinion doesn’t do much for hold up play anyway. He’s got a proven goal scorer on the bench in Carlos Ruiz, who scored 25 goals in a single season for the LA Galaxy and has 88 total MLS goals. I know it’s not the same Ruiz (he’s added a couple years) but he looks to be in the best shape of his life and he specializes in what DC needs at the moment: goals.

United needs somebody to take up a position in the box and get on the end of crosses. Pajoy makes runs all over the pitch, and sometimes when the team is ready for a cross he’s not in the center. Ruiz will be there and knows where the goal is. Pajoy is like having a defender up top, or the first line of defense, but with Ruiz at striker you would definitely have an attacker.

Another recent talking point that brings up questions came in the last match with less than 10 minutes left, and DC down 3-2 to the Columus Crew. Casey Townsend was set to enter only to be switched for Robbie Russell when Chris Korb appeared to have a cramp in his calf. Russell replaced Augusto, who had entered the game at half and lasted just 35 minutes because of an illness he had during the week.

First, why start a guy that can’t go the 90 let alone even 45 minutes?

Also, Olsen brought in a defender to replace a midfielder when the team needed a goal. Not only did he bring in a defender, but one who hasn’t played this season, which showed when he was beat on the dribble with ease leading to a goal-scoring opportunity.

Russell was chosen over a guy who went the full match 2 weeks in a row, scoring 2 goals in the process for the Richmond Kickers. The spark off the bench to help DC United score would have been Townsend with his form and the excitement of a new, young striker taking the field.

Olsen is an assistant coach at best with the job of managing a club and not just any club, one with a history of winning cups.

This quote from Taylor Kemp overheard in the Richmond Kickers press box sums it up quite nicely:

“He’s (Olsen) the type of guy you want to play for, he plays with us in training and he’s one of the best out there," he said. "Training is hard, it’s so fast ... like game speed ... his (Olsen) only thing is tactics (and) we don’t do tactics.”

A point I don’t want lost here is that training sessions must be hard. I mean think about it, Olsen must push his players to the limit. Maybe the game speed approach is too much before matches. DC has looked heavy legged, and both of the team’s starting outside midfielders are injured – Chris Pontius pulled his groin in training and Nick DeLeon strained his hamstring in the early minutes of a match.

Olsen was a top player for the men in black, but now he doesn’t pull on the black top as he has a new job, a much different job. It’s a job he is learning as he goes most likely by trial and error. The club has a tradition of winning so they should have a manager with a history of winning as well. This is DC United, the club needs a proven manager – not an assistant coach.

NEXT UP: May 8 – DC United vs. Houston Dynamo, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, 7 p.m. EST, Comcast Sports Net Washington.


Hampden-Sydney, VCU
Club Domestic:
DC United
Club Foreign:
Traveler of North America and the UK as a youth soccer player, giving him experiences at a young age he wouldn't otherwise have had. Now back to the sport with words, hoping to help grow the game in the US piece by piece. Covers DC United/DMV area soccer.