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D.C. United, Ben Olsen part ways

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For the first time in a decade, United is looking for a new head coach

MLS: D.C. United at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Ben Olsen is no longer D.C. United’s head coach. Mired in a season where almost nothing has gone right, United and their longtime manager have come to an agreement that will see Olsen move away from the coaching side and take up a different post within the organization. With a road game against the Chicago Fire looming this Sunday, United has named assistant coach Chad Ashton as the interim manager.

The Washington Post’s Steven Goff broke the news on Twitter earlier today:

The choice was not a shock, as United has been at the very bottom of the MLS standings for weeks, and have lost four straight games by an 11-1 margin. Olsen leaves the head coaching job with a 2W-5D-9L record on the year, and an overall record of 113W-88D-137L in MLS play. In MLS history, only Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes has lasted longer as one club’s head coach.

Notably, Olsen offered the following comment via a team press release announcing the move:

“My overwhelming emotion right now is that I have been incredibly fortunate to be associated with this great club for 22 years. No one gets that opportunity in professional sports, and I am so much richer for all the amazing experiences and relationships along the way. I will always be grateful. It is now time for a change. It is the right move. The club needs a new face and this is the right time for the club and also for me personally to move in a different direction. I spent the last 22 years waking up every morning thinking about how I could try to make this club better. I definitely didn’t get everything right, but I know I always gave everything I had to try to help this club achieve success. I want to thank everyone at the club, past and present, and all our fans for their support throughout this journey. I am very much looking forward to my next chapter and supporting the club I love.”

Just months after hanging up his boots and joining Curt Onalfo’s staff as an assistant, Olsen was handed the reins on an interim basis in August 2010. At the time, then-club president Kevin Payne made it clear that the plan was for Olsen to be a caretaker while the Black-and-Red pursued someone else, but with the club’s future unclear and finances a major red flag, the job was not exactly an attractive one for experienced head coaches — though renowned German head coach Lucien Favre was among the options that considered the post — looking for a new gig.

Olsen threw his hat into the ring, and ended up being named United’s seventh head coach in November 2010. In the end, Olsen’s tenure included some obvious lows (2013, 2017, and 2020), but also some notable highs. The club won the 2013 US Open Cup despite being MLS’s worst team in regular season play, and had near-misses with glory in 2012’s Eastern Conference Final and the 2014 Supporters Shield race (a season that saw Olsen named MLS’s Coach of the Year). Twice, Olsen presided over seasons that suddenly, dramatically improved for the better, with 2016 and 2018 both featuring remarkable late-season winning runs.

For much of Olsen’s time as head coach, United could only afford to assemble low-budget rosters, requiring teams to succeed via grit and defensive solidity more than attacking flair. Sometimes that lead to clear overachievement, but when United’s defense couldn’t hold up under the weekly pressure, generally the club sank to the bottom of the standings.

However, starting in 2017, the argument that the roster was simply too short on talent started to become difficult to defend. Starting with the two-part move to permanently acquire Luciano Acosta, United’s ownership put up seven-figure transfer fees on players like Paul Arriola, Ola Kamara, and Edison Flores, while also making one of the largest allocation money-based trades in MLS history to acquire Julian Gressel.

Most notably, United landed international superstar Wayne Rooney, bringing increased attention and pressure to succeed. Rooney made his debut on the same night the club opened Audi Field (another reason for ownership to increase expectations), and though United finished that strange season on an undoubted high, the gut punch of a penalty kick exit at the first playoff hurdle has loomed ever since.

2020 has not gone to plan for anyone on the planet, but for United it has been a particularly tough season. Olsen tried multiple approaches through the course of a season that has played out in three sections, but none of those ideas changed D.C.’s fortunes. Injuries and a roster that had completely rebuilt its attack this winter surely played their role, as did a squad that started the year painfully short of defensive depth, but it would be hard to argue that coaching was not part of the equation.

Olsen’s time with United dates back to 1997, when MLS allocated him to the Black-and-Red rather than routing him into the college draft. Olsen immediately carved out a niche as a starter, winning Rookie of the Year as part of arguably the greatest team MLS has ever seen. As a player, Olsen was part of eight of United’s thirteen trophies, earning a spot on the 2007 MLS Best XI as well as the 1999 MLS Cup MVP award. It is not clear yet what his new role within the organization will be.