The Ben Olsen Era is over at D.C. United.
That’s a surprisingly emotional sentence to write after just over a decade with Benny in the technical area, and the range of emotions is itself surprising. I’m sad, but also optimistic. And demanding—it’s time for this organization to figure itself out.
We’ll get to that. First, though:
Ben Olsen, for a lot of people, is D.C. United. Heart of a lion, the man bled for the club, gave his ankles for the club, carried the burden of the club’s financial restraints, took every loss and criticism on the chin. And he did it all without complaint. He’ll tell you it was his privilege.
Even if the popular image of Benny is his screaming face, his grace through it all—including in his damn exit statement!—is why we love him. (Well, that and his playing days, his personality, and his diving into the community, advocating for LGBTQ rights and D.C. statehood.)
That grace has probably shielded the broader D.C. United organization from more intense pressure from fans, myself included. As long as Benny was managing the club, he was the focal point, whether from the longstanding #OlsenOut crowd or those of us responding to them. Even when discussion did move to the level of investment in the club or the roster-building strategy, it would inevitably circle back to Benny and his position.
As of yesterday, that’s no longer the case.
Without Olsen on the sideline, even for the short time left in this 2020 season, attention will move up the organizational ladder to GM Dave Kasper and the ownership group led by Jason Levien and Steve Kaplan. What comes next is on them.
D.C. United need to enter into a new era. It won’t, and shouldn’t, start with hiring a new manager, and it won’t, and shouldn’t, start today.
The club should take what’s left of 2020 to figure out how it needs to look and operate in 2021 and beyond. For years, the Black-and-Red have been a team that lurched from year to year, seemingly in survival mode even after the move to Audi Field in 2018.
Finding a Wayne Rooney or an Edison Flores to plug a hole or build hype won’t do it in today’s MLS. Bringing in talented players like Leo Jara and Titi Rodriguez on loan only to balk at the purchase fee won’t do it. Squeezing a final good year or two out of undervalued MLS veterans won’t do it.
Extended success in MLS these days isn’t built overnight or on reactive measures. The model clubs are those that have a clear vision of what they want to be on and off the field, and a focus on executing that vision to the exclusion of almost everything else. That could be a commitment to bringing up and selling homegrown prospects like the Red Bulls or the Union; it could be a commitment to topline talent supported by academy products like Toronto; it could just be letting Garth Lagerwey work his magic. (Seriously, how are Seattle so good? It’s infuriating!)
I care a lot more about D.C. United building a legitimate and persistent trophy contender over the next decade than I care about making the playoffs in 2020 or even winning a postseason game in 2021. Don’t get me wrong: I’d like the team to be fun and good for the rest of this year and next! But if the decision makers are just thinking about the next year or two, we’ll be right back where we are now before we know it.
Whether D.C. United go out and nab a dream “name” coach from world football — Marcelo Gallardo, Mauricio Pochettino, and the like — or grab an MLS “retread” or promote from within, it will be dedication to the right vision that defines the club’s success and failure much more than the identity of the manager by itself.
What needs to happen is a ground-up, soup-to-nuts, all-cliché-encompassing review of the organization, followed by a long-term strategy to win trophies. Lots of trophies. All the trophies.
That probably requires bringing in somebody to replace or work over Dave Kasper, or ownership might decide that DK should run that process. Either way, only after a real vision has been outlined should United hire the personnel to finalize and execute it.
Anything less runs the risk of carrying too much of the status quo forward. And the status quo sucks!
The Ben Olsen Era is over. Let’s turn the page properly and launch a new era to rival the dynastic D.C. United of the 90s.