Pragmatic in approach, Ben Olsen tries to evolve alongside D.C. United

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

A young coach is trying to instill a new style - in himself and his team - as MLS becomes a more sophisticated league.

WASHINGTON – Ben Olsen winced as he ambled over to speak to a few members of the media at the close of a D.C. United training session last week. 

The decade-long litany of debilitating ankle injuries that forced him to evolve from a flying winger to a cagey holding midfielder, and eventually ended his playing career altogether, still trouble the 38-year-old today. Though on this occasion, he has himself to blame for more soreness than usual. 

Olsen had pedaled his bike on a loop through the city the night before, he explained, and stumbled onto a pickup game in D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood. Even after nine surgeries on those troublesome ankles, he still craves a chance to play, and so he waded into the action among a multinational group that is typical for this diverse global capital – and when the game's intensity “escalated,” in his words, he was always going to feel the consequences the next day.

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“I just needed to get out of the house,” said United's head coach with a trademark wry grin. “I just needed to take a bike ride. And sometimes I find myself in bizarre circumstances in this city.”

The former U.S. international also finds himself in an awkward moment in his coaching career as his tenure in charge of his beloved club moves into its sixth year in 2016. 

When United's front office lost patience with first-year head coach Curt Onalfo in the depths of a brutal 2010 season, they turned to Olsen as an interim figurehead because of the respect he'd earned from fans and colleagues as a player. Plunked into the hot seat barely half a year after his retirement, Olsen and his superiors freely admitted he was unqualified for the position, yet he wound up keeping it. In the process, he became a poster child for a uniquely MLS trend: hiring iconic players as coaches and asking them to learn on the job.

Directed to keep D.C. competitive during an extended period of fiscal austerity brought on by a cost-cutting ownership group and a never-ending wait for a new stadium, Olsen has met that challenge, winning the 2013 U.S. Open Cup and leading United into the MLS Cup Playoffs in three of his five full seasons in charge, including the last two. He sculpted a team in his own gritty image, collecting bargain castoffs from other MLS clubs in a sort of soccer version of “The Expendables” and arranging them in a tenacious, defense-first system.

“I go into games with the idea of, 'how do we win today?' That's my focus. How do we win this game?” Olsen told reporters at United's season kickoff event in February. “If I have a team that can out-possess a team 70-30 [percent] and still get results, great. If we view on that day it's going to be a 60-40 – they're going to have the ball 60 [percent] – and we can win this game, I'm OK with that too.”

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But in the rapidly evolving – and increasingly cash-flush – environment of Major League Soccer, that may not be enough to reach the summit anymore. Nor does it offer a particularly compelling consumer product for Washington D.C.'s large and internationally-minded soccer market, especially in the decaying confines of old RFK Stadium. 

Harsh reality checks were delivered in the 2014 and 2015 playoffs, where United were defeated by New York Red Bulls teams with more resources and more dynamism up front. Last year's matchup in particular exposed the limitations of Olsen's approach. D.C. went bruisingly direct against their high-pressing rivals and set a 2016 MLS record for lowest pass completion rate (a woeful 54.5 percent), keeping the scoreline close but never really threatening the favored Red Bulls' goal over two legs.

“We were just trying to slug it out in the playoffs.” D.C. assistant coach Amos Magee told FourFourTwo this week. “We made a series of it, but it certainly wasn't stylistically what we wanted it to be.

“We know it wasn't good enough, and we know that teams that won the [last two] championships, LA and Portland, were doing a better job of keeping possession and getting more chances and being a handful in the attacking third. That comes from possession, that comes from some special players.”

Recognizing weaknesses

So this winter, United quietly set about augmenting their squad's technical quality and attacking diversity, flush with the league's new TAM (“targeted allocation money”) funds, MLS' new effort to encourage clubs to build out their rosters with elite talent one rung below the “Designated Player” status usually reserved for marquee acquisitions. 

“We all wanted to continue to build on the resiliency and toughness, but also with a little bit more stylistic aplomb,” said Magee, noting that the process began immediately after the postseason exit in November. “We don't want to throw out everything that we've been about and that's been successful, but we want to get better. The league's getting better and we want to evolve.”

Skillful Argentine playmaker Luciano Acosta arrived on loan from Boca Juniors; Antonio Nocerino was aggressively pursued, only for Eastern Conference counterparts Orlando City to nip in and snare the Italian midfielder, reportedly breaking MLS tampering rules in the process. 

Closer to home, D.C. picked up Marcelo Sarvas, Lamar Neagle and Patrick Nyarko, technical players with strong MLS pedigrees who were ready to leave their clubs in Colorado, Seattle and Chicago, respectively. Wide midfielder Nick DeLeon has moved centrally in an attempt to make fuller use of his traits. 

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Luciano Acosta injection represents DCU's attempted shift in style. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

To a significant degree, United's hand was forced: They lost their engine room when ironman Perry Kitchen played out his contract and departed for Europe in the hopes of improving his U.S. national team chances, and post-concussion symptoms drove veteran Davy Arnaud into retirement. But fresh blood was prioritized, and ample TAM remains: D.C. are prepared to spend on further attacking reinforcements this summer if the opportunities present themselves. TAM is criticized for its deeply MLS-ian nature – complex, non-transparent, centrally-run. Yet it nonetheless represents a marked step forward in ambition, and it demands much the same of those who have been empowered to spend it.

Can homegrown coaches like Olsen come to grips with the new challenges, the larger and increasingly cultured talent pool that the league's new spending is designed to cultivate? Can an MLS lifer produce the managerial sophistication required to bring a utilitarian side up to championship-caliber tempo?

Some observers have mocked Olsen for what they view as tactical simplicity. However, Magee – who served under respected Portland Timbers boss Caleb Porter before moving to D.C. – sees it differently. 

“I've been astounded at how instinctual he is, in terms of managing people and managing games,” he said of Olsen. “One of his great strengths is, he doesn't think he knows everything. He empowers people who he feels do a good job.

“His ability to sniff out when guys are heading down a wrong path or when their confidence needs a boost or when they need a kick in the ass – I think he's incredible at that. That's not something you can teach; it's a way that you know people and you sense people and you figure out what they need. And he's as good as anybody at that, that I've been around.” 

Olsen downplays the idea that 2016 calls for a dramatically different approach. 

“It's still about evaluating your team: What are we capable of? And I think this team is capable of more possessions, more buildup,” he said last week. “This isn't a philosophical change. I'm always pragmatic. I'm always going to size up my group and see what we're capable of. How can we win games? 

Early returns on United's process are inconclusive. They missed an inviting opportunity in CONCACAF Champions League that probably arrived too soon in this process, falling 3-1 on aggregate to Mexico's Queretaro in the quarterfinals of that tournament. Then they played the vaunted LA Galaxy off their own park for the first 45 minutes of their MLS season opener, only for the five-time champions to blow them away with four unanswered second-half goals – two via set pieces, a cardinal sin in Olsen's eyes – in a 4-1 final result.

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Last weekend's trip to New England featured the old D.C. resilience, as the Revolution outpaced them in nearly every statistical category but could not finish their chances in a 0-0 draw. 

Olsen's most useful tool may well be his own evolution in the craft, most of it gained via trial by fire. Where he once gave in to the temptation to jump into small-sided games alongside his charges, now he usually stalks the training ground with the detachment of a European-style manager. He believes his players are the ones best-suited to find the solutions to the challenges ahead.

“It's a long season. They get tired of hearing you,” said Olsen. “Bark and bitch all day long every day, they'll tune you out by May. So it's a balance and sometimes you've got to let them talk, sometimes you've got to let them solve it. 

“That's the one constant in this: Every season is completely different, and all the problem solving is based on similar things, but each circumstance is different. It's always changing, and the game's changing and evolving. That's part of the intrigue and fun of this job.”

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