DC United Wins Hearts, Loses Its Mind

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Head Coach Ben Olsen of D.C. United looks on prior to their MLS match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at The Home Depot Center on September 18, 2010 in Carson, California. The Galaxy defeated United 2-1. (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)

Let me step back from my normal neutral MLS observer/blogger and enter fan mode for a few minutes.  I think this is the best way to analyze the Ben Olsen hiring.

As a DC United supporter, I am ecstatic that Ben Olsen is the new head coach of the club.  His resume as a DC United player is exemplary and he has been with the Black and Red through good times and bad.  He was there when RFK was a good soccer venue and now when it is a disgrace.  He has won MLS Cups and seen the worst MLS club in history up-close.  Throughout it all he has been a leader and a revered part of the organization.  I spoke with a fellow DC United fan today and he was beyond happy for the hiring because he is a long-time Olsen fan.  I thought it interesting that the reaction tends to be just that: “I love Ben Olsen.”  The emotional aspect of his hiring is that he is one of us, and he has achieved a dream job just a year after leaving the pitch as a player.  In that aspect, this is a great hiring and one the fans can support.

But when you set the heart aside and begin to analyze this with your head, this quote about Olsen as a head coach jumps to mind:

“I don’t think he’s ready. I really believe Ben is going to be a very good coach someday. I just think his brain works the way your brain needs to work to be a successful. He’s thoughtful, he looks for reasons why, he understands the mentality of the players, he has a fierce will to win and a competitive streak. But it takes time to understand how to manage a group through a long season.”

That lengthy quote analyzing the new head coach of DC United was made by his boss, Kevin Payne, days after the worst season in DC United history was finished.  Olsen was the interim head coach and his record was eerily similar to the man he replaced in terms of win percentage.  I don’t think many people disagreed at the time with Payne that the now-youngest coach in MLS history was not ready to take on the top job.

Yet here he was today in DC all smiles with the DC United leadership after being hired for a job he wanted but didn’t expect to get.  We know from The Washington Post that DC United interviewed about seven candidates, including Lucien Favre (a bad word in DC today) who was moderately successful in Bundesliga.  Most of the candidates were MLS assistants, and I suspect DC United reached out to a few college coaches.  But none of the seven were the fit that Ben Olsen was, according to the team.  To put this in perspective, in November 2009 Ben Olsen was on the pitch as a player.  One year later, he is the head coach after spending less than a year as an assistant.  Yet he is a better fit for the club than these seven other candidates.  Again, emotionally this is exciting for DC fans, but logically it makes no sense or suggests an untold storyline, especially since Olsen was initially told he would not be considered for the head job!

As I mentioned in another post on this subject, DC United is at a crossroads.  The future is unsettled but the past is known – the once glorious franchise has reached a nadir, and all the people in charge of running the team have returned.  The interim (now permanent) head coach, the team president, general manager, and owner will all be the same next year.  And this is not Olsen’s fault, nor do I blame him for saying yes when offered.  However the move looks to outsiders and cynics as a cost-saving, desperation move.

With all my heart I hope Ben Olsen succeeds and leads DC United back into the playoffs.  But I hope my heart is right and my head is wrong.

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