Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ben Olsen: Heart of a Lion

For those of you who don't know much about D.C. United veteran midfielder Ben Olsen (and let's face it, I assume that's all of you), I would like to give you a history of the player's career. After playing at Virginia from 1995-1997 (and being named by Soccer America Magazine the national player of the year), Olsen joined D.C. United as a speedy outside midfielder, racking up four goals and eight assists en route to winning 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year honors.

Those numbers rose to five goals and 11 assists during his sophomore campaign with United, and Olsen topped the year off by winning the MLS Cup MVP after scoring the second goal in D.C.'s 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. With former D.C. United and Virginia coach Bruce Arena taking over the U.S. National Team, Olsen became a prominent player for the red-white-and-blue as well. Simply put, Olsen was as promising a young American soccer prospect as there was at the time.

In 2000, however, Olsen suffered a major ankle injury in a collision with Chicago Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton and missed much of the season. After recovering, however, Olsen was loaned to England First Division side Nottingham Forest and immediately impressed. The side was ready to offer MLS a transfer fee for Olsen's permanent rights before the young midfielder suffered another devastating ankle injury.

Over the course of the entire 2001 and 2002 MLS seasons, Olsen started a grand total of seven games. He completely fell out of the U.S. National Team picture and watched from home as the Yanks made a Cinderella run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals without him. On November 17, 2002, in the U.S.'s first game since World Cup, Olsen returned to the national team by getting the start against El Salvador at RFK Stadium. Olsen made his comeback an emphatic one, scoring the game's first goal in an eventual 2-0 U.S. win. In 2003, Olsen continued his career revival, starting 26 games after returning to his right midfield slot.

Olsen, however, missed the 2003 MLS play-offs after yet another ankle injury. Under new United coach Peter Nowak, Olsen was moved from his traditional outside midfield position to a new central midfield slot. Having lost much of the speed that once made him one of the league's fastest players, the move into the middle of the park suited Olsen well. Embracing the role of a hard-nosed, defensive-minded veteran whose scrappy play compensated for a lack of physical prowess (Olsen, aside from having lost his speed to injuries, only stands 5-8), Olsen earned MLS All-Star honors and was a key contributor to a United side that won the 2004 MLS Cup.

Although he was no londer the prolific goal scorer and playmaker that once sprinted up and down the outside of the pitch, Olsen's continued to be one of MLS's best players, even if his contributions didn't show up in the box score.

Despite his play, Olsen was considered a long shot at best to make the World Cup team since he did not play in a single 2006 World Cup qualifier. But the veteran scored twice for the U.S. in the team's warm-up games and, thanks to his versatility and reputation as an extremely positive locker room presence, Olsen earned a presitigious spot on Arena's 23-man roster. After not playing in the first two games in Germany, Olsen came on as a first half sub in the Americans' final game against Ghana. Later on, Olsen would repeatedly cite this as the most proud moment of his career.

In 2007, with Olsen having been free of injury for several years, new United coach Tom Soehn moved him back to his old outside midfield spot and the grizzled veteran responded with the best season of his career. Scoring seven goals (including his first professional hat trick in a 4-2 win over Red Bull New York), tallying seven assists and earning MLS first team honors, Olsen was back to the player he used to be. Playing again for the U.S. at the 2007 Copa America tournament, Olsen was regarded as arguably the Americans' best player.

For a player whose career was so devastated by injuries, who had to go from relying on speed and energy to depending on his soccer IQ, leadership and grit - to see Olsen make the World Cup team and then have that kind of MLS season was one of my most satisfying experiences as a fan.

That off-season, however, saw Olsen's faultly ankles again give him trouble. He publicly contemplated retirement and missed the entire 2008 season, aside from one appearance as a substitute on June 28 in D.C.'s 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Galaxy. In a game where over 40,000 people packed into RFK Stadium to see David Beckham play, Olsen received the loudest ovation (the Olsen stuff starts at 6:40) upon enterting the match and being handed the captain's armband. The United supporters exuded their appreciation of Olsen, unveiling a banner that read "Ben Olsen: Heart of a Lion."

Olsen has returned to United this season, again moving back to central midfield. Few think Olsen has the fitness to play a full 90 minutes anymore, but on Friday against the New England Revolution, injuries forced United to use all three of its subs and Olsen had no choice but to play the whole game. In the second half, Olsen and Revs midfielder Wells Thompson had confrontation that ended with each player earning a yellow card. With United trailing 1-0 in second-half stoppage time, Olsen leaped over Thompson to head home (goal is just after 3 minute mark of that video) a Jaime Moreno freekick and salvage a 1-1 draw for the home side. After scoring the goal, Olsen gave some choice words to Thompson amid his celebration.

Following the game, Olsen gave this gem to the Washington Post about his feud with Thompson:
"Ah, he's a good kid," the DCU veteran said. "Look, it's New England-D.C. I figured I would try to start a fight to get us moving (laughing). It's a heated game. No hard feelings."

For a bit more about Olsen, check out Mike Wise's fantastic column (and great making the column video)

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