The rumors we all heard over the weekend have become reality: D.C. United has named Ben Olsen as its head coach. After interviewing multiple candidates, including coaches from the college ranks, MLS assistants, former MLS head coaches, and former Hertha Berlin boss Lucien Favre, the club decided to stick with the man that served as interim head coach for the final 12 games of the 2010 season.
Everyone that supports D.C. United loves Ben Olsen. He could steal my car, and I'd feel guilt about not having a better car for Ben Olsen to steal. In a league like MLS, where talk of "club legends" is usually either a stretch or outright silly, Olsen is a legitimate icon by any standard. Going with my heart, I can easily see an inspirational character like Olsen spurring this club, currently doing poorly on and off the field, back to our former glory. On a boring Monday, it has made a pretty spectacular daydream.
So why do I feel conflicted? Read on to find out:Let's start with the good things about this decision. Olsen's record of 3-1-8 (or 10 points from 12 games) is hardly encouraging. However, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone that follows D.C. United that would say the team didn't visibly improve under Olsen as compared to how they had played under former coach Curt Onalfo. One great example of this was our U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Columbus Crew. Sure, we lost the game, but Columbus was pushed to their very limits to beat us despite playing the last 30 minutes of regulation and all of extra time with 10 men after Pablo Hernandez was somewhat harshly sent off (or more correctly, that Hernandez was sent off while instigator Danny O'Rourke got off with only a yellow card). Columbus was one of the best teams in MLS at the time, and hadn't become tired as they did down the stretch of the MLS season. On paper, this was a team we had no business outplaying for a half and nearly beating. Under Onalfo, we'd have likely been brushed aside 2-0 or worse.
Olsen also found himself encountering an almost comical list of obstacles. The season as a whole was obviously over after the Open Cup loss, and we were already dead in MLS's playoff hunt before Olsen was even named interim head coach. Veteran leaders like Jaime Moreno and Troy Perkins found themselves on the bench behind unproven young players, which is always a tricky situation. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the playing squad was decimated by injuries to such an extent that MLS even granted us a one-game hardship signing for a field player (something that pretty much never happens). At every position on the field, we lost at least one player to injury at some point.
Despite all of that, Olsen kept the locker room together. It was telling that there were no moments of public dissent toward the coaching staff, the front office, or even arguments with fellow players. All of the ingredients were there for some kind of explosion to occur, but instead the players stuck together and kept battling. They publicly backed each other, and then showed that it was more that just words on the field. The results were largely depressing, but the players at least showed dignity and pride in an awful situation.
Contrast that with Toronto FC (a team Olsen got a win over). TFC saw everything go to hell towards the end of the season. There was the Dwayne De Rosario check-writing incident, the way the club handled the firing of Preki and Mo Johnston (essentially throwing them both under the bus, firing the bus up, and driving it back and forth over those two repeatedly), the accusations from interim boss Nick Dasovic that some players had quit on their teammates ... in short, it was a train wreck. This was despite the fact that TFC didn't fall out of the playoff hunt until the final couple of games.
A lot of credit for United avoiding an ugly end to the season is due to Olsen's abilities as a leader of men. Whatever we might say about his inexperience in terms of in-game management, it must be acknowledged that Olsen got about as much out of what was left of D.C. United as could be gotten. Honestly, given the players we had available down the stretch, would you imagine a much better record with Bruce Arena or Sigi Schmid in charge? The fact is that every time we avoided defeat over the last third of the season, it seemed more like a pleasant surprise because we were at a significant deficit in terms of talent, experience, and quality.
Yet I'm still conflicted, because I've never felt that appointing a coach is a particularly big issue for D.C. when compared to the other concerns surrounding the club. As Kyle McCarthy points out on goal.com, the problems are elsewhere. Even at full strength, and with the intelligent move to get Dax McCarty, we have one of the weakest squads in MLS. We have no natural strikers that can be conclusively seen as threatening, our defense is in major need of reinforcements, and we can't be sure whether Perkins just had an off-year in goal or if he's actually just regressed for whatever reason. The squad here needs major work, even after the acquisition of McCarty.
That point dovetails nicely with the other big concern when it comes to putting together our squad: Dave Kasper. While Kasper has been involved with some excellent moves (finding Christian Gomez, beating MLS clubs to the punch to sign Clyde Simms, drafting Chris Pontius and Rodney Wallace), he has undoubtedly had more misses than hits. His percentage of successful signings has gotten worse even as the club's budget has gotten more strained due to our stadium and ownership issues. Since the departure of Ryan Nelsen, United has always appeared to be in need of at least one more quality defender; having the same problem for six years running is utterly unacceptable.
I see a lot of rage directed at club president Kevin Payne, but I don't necessarily see him as the villain others do. I think Payne is simply loyal to a fault (note his undeniable dedication to keeping former players "in house," whether it be on the coaching staff, helping the front office, or working with the youth academy). Payne put Kasper in charge years ago, and initially Kasper (with lots of input from Peter Nowak) did well.
Those times are gone. MLS has gotten more complicated, and our old status as the smartest guys in the room has long since worn off. Around the league, we see clubs doing what we used to do: Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas have clearly lapped us in terms of scouting South American countries, not to mention other teams that are also way ahead of us like the Seattle Sounders. CONMEBOL used to be our playground; it was like we always had first dibs and everyone else was stuck with whatever we decided wasn't good enough. Now it's the other way around. We sign the Gonzalo Peraltas and Jose Carvallos of the world, while other MLS clubs are grabbing up David Ferreira, Fredy Montero, Jamison Olave, and Juninho.
Even our more recent tendency to target mid-level European leagues isn't the best. We signed Louis Crayton, a former longtime back up keeper for a top Swiss club; Seattle signed Blaise Nkufo, whose former club built a statue of him! Could the difference be any clearer? Even New England, a club that is notorious for being cheap and having little front office ambition (whatever ambition the Revs have comes from Steve Nicol and his players) went out and found Marko Perovic. To put it bluntly, we have not put together a good squad since 2007, despite having numerous opportunities.
My conflicted feelings about this hiring are not at all based on apprehension about Ben Olsen. I think he has every chance to be the next Jason Kreis. My problem is that Kreis was given the platform to succeed. Garth Lagerwey (a former play-by-play guy for D.C.; yes, folks, MLS's hottest GM at the moment was right under our noses at one point) has built a great squad and works extremely well with Kreis. The connection there is clear, and it works wonders. Olsen, meanwhile, will be stuck with a GM who has long since lost his touch, and who has shown a tendency to either sign players that aren't good enough or overpay the adequate ones. I am conflicted because I worry that Olsen, who has truly earned the affection United fans have for him, is being put in a position where any success he has will be in spite of the terrible circumstances around him.
This situation is unfair to Olsen, unfair to the good players we do have who deserve the chance to be surrounded by equally skilled players, and unfair to the fans. Olsen was signed today, and I already find myself thinking that "a good season" would simply mean Olsen and the players overcoming the club's tendency to shoot itself in the foot. That's not how things should be. We should be doing everything we can to set Olsen up to be the raging success he could be, rather than leaving a club infrastructure in place that will make his job much harder than it needs to be.
Early on, I pointed out that Olsen finished the year by doing about as well as could be expected from any MLS head coach given our injuries and the lack of help he got from higher up the org chart. I can't shake the feeling that that's all we can ever hope for with the current front office. Can you picture MLS's best coaches succeeding when having to choose between keeping a player that isn't good enough or replacing him with a player that also won't be good enough?
Let me close with a story. A couple of years ago, I had a nasty ankle sprain playing indoor soccer. Once it healed enough that I could go to work without a walking boot, I got back to playing wearing a brace, extensively rubbing it down before every game with Ben-Gay, and taking Tylenol before and after games. I could grit my teeth and play, but obviously the real problem wasn't being addressed. What I needed wasn't a better brace or stronger meds; I needed rehab to strengthen the joint and rest to allow proper healing to take place.
I think United is making a similar mistake. We're not fixing the problem; we're just hoping to be able to deal with it adequately enough to get by. For me, success went from getting assists and goals and making big defensive plays to merely getting through a game without having to sub myself out due to the pain, or hurting my team because I couldn't shift my weight or run fast enough. Similarly, I think success for us is reduced to seeing Olsen get decent results despite being hamstrung by a front office that gets more things wrong than they do right.