United Looks to Gain Form

Manager Ben Olsen seems secure despite rough start to the season
by Peter Muller   |   Friday, May 17, 2013

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

Watch DC United’s manager Ben Olsen on the sidelines and you will be reminded of the way he played the game.

Fit and stylish in his hipster suits and ties, Olsen prowls the sideline barking at the officials, exhorting his players to give more, trying to influence the game in any way he can.

It is Olsen’s evident commitment to the club that led supporters to unveil a tifo declaring “Ben Olsen Heart of a Lion” in 2008 and may be what sees him survive one of the roughest stretches in DC United’s history.

Most professional soccer managers find themselves on the hot seat when their team begins a season 1-8-1. Frustrated fans call for the coach’s head. The glare of the media makes life unbearable for the coach and players alike. Team management loses patience and looks for a quick fix.

So it is worth noting that in Washington, D.C., where United entered the 2013 campaign as a legitimate playoff contender, a disastrous start to the season is unlikely to see Olsen lose his job as head coach anytime soon.

Olsen recently acknowledged his position is getting more precarious and said he has seen coached fired for less. But there are a number of factors working in Olsen’s favor that are likely to keep him in the job longer than others in this situation.

Icon status

Olsen is an icon to DC United supporters. Longtime fans remember him as the kid who slept in Bruce Arena’s spare bedroom when he left the University of Virginia early to turn professional. They remember his goal to win United’s third MLS Cup in 1999. And they remember the hustle and determination that defined him as a player.

He wore his emotions on his sleeve and left everything on the field. He is a link to United’s golden age and has been a fan favorite since he first donned the black and red. He is granted a benefit of the doubt that is not afforded most other coaches.

In addition, Olsen is a prominent resident of the District of Columbia and lives in one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, making him all the more appealing to many of United’s core fans. He has been the face of campaigns advertising for DC Statehood and regularly appears in The Washington Post or Washingtonian Magazine talking about his favorite restaurants or activities in the city.

On top of his well-earned status as a legendary player and ambassador for the city, Olsen began his head coaching career in a no-lose situation. He was an assistant to Curt Onalfo and took over the top spot when Onalfo was unceremoniously dumped in 2010. Expectations were low for the team Olsen inherited and it was clear to fans the club was in a rebuilding phase.

Last season’s surprise playoff run returned some of the luster to a franchise that had underperformed in recent years. Olsen’s legend grew as he argued for a playoff game to be played on snowy Red Bull Arena field and led his team to a victory in the post-season series against New York.

Olsen’s popularity has prevented fans from responding in the way they typically do when a team is losing. United supporters still root for Olsen to succeed and “fire the coach” signs have yet to appear at RFK Stadium.

Team ownership

DC United’s ownership team is singularly focused on securing a new stadium for the club. Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir and managing partner Jason Levien bought majority ownership of the team last year and have been clear that their most important goal is to find a new, long-term home for the club.

While they insist they want to field a competitive team, there is little evidence they are truly willing to invest in the squad until the stadium issue is resolved. They are unlikely to eat the contract of a coach who still seems to have the support of the fans despite the poor performance on the field.

Not given much to work with

Finally, Olsen does not have enough quality in his team to compete for a playoff position. The front office did not adequately replace Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic. Even Hamdi Salihi and Maicon Santos, who were not highly regarded but did produce goals, were let go without sufficient replacements in mind.

Instead of bringing-in a proven goal-scorer United signed a “young designated player” who does not seem ready to make a significant contribution. A veteran midfielder here and a young defender there have not been enough to make DC competitive.

All of this is not to say that Olsen doesn’t bear some responsibility for the performance of his team. United have given up so many early-game goals that one has to question his squad’s preparation. But it does suggest that despite United’s terrible start to the season Olsen’s job is probably secure for a while.

Sporting KC preview

DC seeks to end its 7-game losing streak, including 4 in a row at home, when it hosts Sporting Kansas City at RFK Stadium Sunday evening. The teams met in Kansas City in April with Sporting taking a 1-0 victory on a late goal by Claudio Bieler.

Chris Pontius’ status for the game remains uncertain as he tries to come back from a groin injury that has sidelined him in recent weeks. Sporting defender Matt Besler appears ready to return from injury but his partner in central defense, Aurelien Collin, is suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Former United midfielder Bobby Convey also won’t suit up for SKC after he was traded to Toronto FC midweek.

The match will mark the end of United defender Robbie Russell’s professional career. The 33-year-old, who played 13 seasons of professional soccer in MLS and Europe, announced this week he retiring to pursue a medical degree. Russell has provided veteran leadership for United but appeared in just one game this year.

NEXT UP: May 19 - DC United vs. Sporting Kansas City, RFK Stadium, Washington, DC, 5:00 PM ET, Univision.


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.