Young Ben awakens sleeping giant with rejuvenating regime

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After a long dormant period, MLS giants DC United have awoken under young coach Ben Olsen. On the eve of the play-offs, Kris Heneage investigates the rejuvenation at the RFK Stadium...

“Did I think I’d still be relevant?" asks Ben Olsen. "Simple answer: no."

It's a frank admission of how he saw his career panning out after an 11-year stint playing in the nation’s capital. By 2010, Olsen had just completed a brief stint as interim head coach for DC United following the dismissal of Curt Onalfo. Keen to take the job permanently, he was told very publicly he would not be getting it.

“I don't think he's ready,” said club president Kevin Payne. He would reiterate his stance several times, even interviewing candidates that included current Gladbach coach Lucien Favre. Yet somehow, Olsen was named head coach just a month later. He had progressed from the playing field to the technical staff and was now in the top job.

Payne claims there was an element of exaggeration to his initial dismissal: “I overplayed the fact that we wouldn’t consider him for a job.” There was method to his perceived madness – he wanted Olsen to experience some of the growing pains associated with the job, test his abilities so that they knew he was ready.

That’s because the job was potentially arduous. A team steeped in history, DC United won three of the first four MLS Cups in the late 1990s, adding a fourth success in 2004. Throw in numerous Eastern Conference Championships and four Supporters Shields and it would be fair to consider the club a slumbering giant of the US game.

But as the ceremony for his recent induction into the club’s hall of tradition confirmed, Olsen has gained a reputation for his tireless work ethic. A dynamic midfielder, he was surprisingly candid when asked how he was able to guide the team into the play-offs: “We went boring, and we won.”

Olsen: The Black-and-Reds' white knight

What Olsen calls boring, others acclaim as defensive stability. Only conceding five goals in their last eight games secured a play-off place, and proved that building from the back can be just as profitable as free-flowing forward play. “It’s not in our DNA to sit back, defend and counter-attack,” Olsen admits. “The goal is to entertain and play attractive soccer. Maybe we could have still done it. I don’t know. But we had to focus on defending.”

Perhaps the most impressive feat during his time has been the ability to respond to adversity. In 2011, Dwayne De Rosario was the league’s MVP and the fulcrum of the DC United midfield after a mid-season trade from the New York Red Bulls – their opponents in the impending Eastern Conference play-off semi-final. De Rosario was always going to struggle to live up to that fantastic form, but he was still a vital component of Olsen’s team in 2012.

Which is why when he picked up a knee injury playing for Canada early in September, questioned if DC would stumble – but they didn’t. A youngster in his current profession, Olsen carries forth that rejuvenating attitude into his team: the last generation of Black-and-Red heroes that included Olsen, Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry have now been replaced by the likes of Andy Najar, Bill Hamid, and Perry Kitchen – all of whom are under 22.

Youthquake: Olsen with Andy Najar

Even the side’s 2012 MVP, Chris Pontius, is only 25. As if to prove the youthful point, Pontius has been playing ahead of the veteran De Rosario, who himself is still keen to prove that time has not dulled his ability – a recent documentary showing the kind of high-level professionalism that De Rosario brings to the locker room.

Off the pitch, things are also beginning to look positive. In August, the new owners confirmed that a new stadium in the District of Columbia is achievable, with Buzzard Point, a peninsula on Anacostia River, already earmarked as the potential venue. DC's longstanding tenancy at the Robert F Kennedy stadium, built in the 1960s for baseball and American football, has been a problem for years; the chance to gain their own soccer-specific stadium, similar to the likes of the Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes, could herald a new dawn for the league’s most successful club.

In the meantime, there's the small matter of the play-off games against the New York Red Bulls awaits. The catastrophic Hurricane Sandy has already seen a fixture reversal that means DC will host their opponents this Saturday, before the return leg in New Jersey next Wednesday.

As if it wasn't enough that the winners will be one step from the MLS Cup final – a stage that DC haven't graced since 2004, and New York only once – there's already a heated rivalry between the two: they compete for the Atlantic Cup, awarded to the team with the most points accrued during their meetings that season. It will undoubtedly be a passionate affair, providing Olsen with the chance to once more weave himself into the Black-and-Red tapestry of Washington DC soccer.

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