City Paper is not for tourists
“Aww, Frankie, life is so hard. I know. Life is so hard.”
Ben Olsen’s four-year-old son is in full meltdown as his father leads him and his older siblings Oscar, seven, and Ruby, ten, down a narrow alley behind their school. Olsen is doing his best to assuage the kid, scooping him up in his arms as they near the corner. There are promises of chocolate, a trip to the park, even a visit with Grandpa. He appears inconsolable.
Olsen looks over his shoulder at the rest of his clan, feigning disgust and pointing to a pair of smashed rodents on the pavement. “What is that smell? Oscar? What is that smell? It’s a rat! It’s Charlie the rat!”
All three shriek in mock—or maybe actual—terror. Frankie gets plopped down for a closer look as they walk by, his anxiety temporarily replaced by morbid curiosity. “This is our recent crier,” says Olsen, tousling his youngest son’s hair. “C’mon partner. We got stuff to do.”
D.C. United is in the middle of the biggest year in its storied history, one that’s seen the team move into a gleaming new home and, in English legend Wayne Rooney, sign one of the biggest names in the history of the game. After a slow start, the team is charging hard toward the final playoff spot in their conference and there is an actual buzz about the team in this city, maybe for the first time.
Olsen, the club’s head coach since 2010, now faces real, consequential expectations. For years, any expectations were tempered by the fact that the club wasn’t spending on top players, or marketing, or much of anything, eager to limit its losses until they moved into a new facility. But now, with Rooney and company playing entertaining soccer and the club itself thrust into the limelight, Ben Olsen is under immense pressure.
He isn’t showing it today. Though United plays home games at Audi Field, the players are stuck training at RFK Stadium for the time being while the club completes work on a new training facility. His wife Megan teaches health and physical education in the area, so for the time being, Olsen has the pleasure of depositing his kids at school on his way to work every morning.
When time allows, he can also pick them up, as he’s done today. The three load in to their dad’s SUV and Olsen winds down city streets, eventually arriving at his residence in Shaw, a spacious rowhouse that he’s called home for a decade. They walk inside, and his kids disperse shortly thereafter. Ben then turns his attention to a speaker that’s filing the living room with Ruby’s music. “ALEXA! ALEXA! OFF! Ruby, did you change the name on this thing again?” The three of them have disappeared upstairs for now. Olsen kills the music. The sound of them at play, their stomping feet above, is an apt enough soundtrack for a Friday afternoon.
The place is full of artwork, mostly pieces that belonged to Olsen’s grandfather. He was an advertising agent in New York City but spent much of his time at home in his studio, sculpting and painting. He was also an inventor, and a picker, all of which runs in the family—Olsen makes art in his studio on O Street NW, and his older brother owns an antique shop in Philly.
The shelves in Olsen’s living room are full of his grandpa’s “whimsies,” elegantly crafted wood sculptures that all hide some secret—press a lever or pull a chain and you’ll find out what it is. “My grandmother just passed away last year,” Olsen says. “Now they’re both gone. Their house was just epic. You couldn’t imagine how much of this type of stuff there was. This wall would have like 10 paintings and four tchotchkes, all kinds of stuff.” He motions to a sculpture of a wooden whale in the corner, pulls on a lever on its back, and Ahab pops out. The lever then falls off. The risk of having this kind of stuff out around kids, it seems.
The Ben Olsen who settles into a chair in his living room for a chat with a reporter is a far cry from what many fans have become accustomed to seeing. During games, United’s skipper wears his heart on his sleeve. He can be pensive, thoughtful, playful, cantankerous, animated, even downright angry. He is fiercely loyal to his employer and can be combative with those who aren’t.
Just days before his club’s biggest game in recent memory, a must-win encounter with Montreal (United went on to win that match 5-0), Olsen seems at ease. He picks his words carefully, but you get the sense he’s in a pretty good place.
“I never wanted to coach,” he says. “As a player, I looked at these coaches I had and I was like, ‘Why would these guys put themselves through this?’ I remember being conscious of this. Because you could see it throughout the season. You could see it on their faces. They were just … worn down.”
Forced into retirement by chronic injuries after a 12-year career as a midfielder for the club, United deputized Olsen as an assistant coach in 2010. A few months later, mid-way through a truly terrible season, Olsen was handed the head coaching spot. He thought he might do it for a couple of years. “See what it was all about,” he says. Eight years later, he’s the longest-tenured head coach in the team’s history.
He has survived a pair of dreadful seasons—a 2013 campaign that was arguably the worst ever by any MLS team, and a 20-loss season in 2017. He has also enjoyed more than a few highlights: Olsen was the league’s coach of the year in 2014, he managed an improbable U.S. Open Cup championship in 2013, and he’s guided his side to the playoffs somewhat reliably.
He has also matured greatly as a coach and tactician over the years. Olsen’s early sides earned a reputation for grinding out results, often at the expense of playing attractive soccer. You could see, very clearly, an influence from his days as a player. Olsen was a hard-charging midfielder, the type of player who worked his way under your skin.
There was skill there, yes—enough to send him to a World Cup, even—but over the years those nagging injuries forced him to adapt his game. Toward the end, it was his scrappiness that stood out. He was a streetfighter, and he instilled that mentality in a series of United squads that scratched and clawed their way to victory, or at least tried to.
Olsen has retained a lot of that—he’s still widely perceived as a “player’s coach,” a manager who’s learned to bring the best out of his men. But he’s also taken a studious turn, absorbing a great deal from his peers.
His hand has been forced a bit. Major League Soccer is a whole different animal than it was when Olsen joined the league.
“Coaching in MLS has come a long way since I stopped playing—there wasn’t a lot of high-level coaching, I think 15 years ago in this league. Now you have to keep pushing yourself year after year, because every week you could play a [former NYCFC coach Patrick] Vieira, and then a Scandinavian team, and then a Tata Martino, an Argentine. It’s a whole different animal. You have an Italian, Euro-style counter-attack team coming in this weekend in Montreal. And then you’ll play Columbus, kind of a Dutch influence, stretch it out at all costs, and the next game you’ll get the Red Bulls—they just split the field in half and just slam it down your throat,” says Olsen.
“I’m proud of the way we’re playing right now. I want people to be entertained, and now I think for the first time I have some of the guns. You can’t just take this and create that. You need THIS to create that.”
There is chatter out there, among media and fans alike, that Olsen, who has always enjoyed a relatively long leash, may well be fired from his post if United fail to make the playoffs this year. They remain below the playoff line with five games left in their season.
“It really doesn’t [bother me], man. At this point, it doesn’t,” he says. “Three years ago, four years ago, I think it would’ve bothered me. I feel like I’m here for D.C. United. If D.C. United’s president, the owners decide that D.C. is gonna be in a better spot without me? Cool. I’m here for D.C. United.”
It is hard to imagine Olsen coaching anywhere else. He is so deeply associated with United, a name that fans thrust up there with other club greats like Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, and John Harkes. Olsen is the current club’s last true link to their glory days, the squads of the mid-to-late ’90s and early 2000s that set the bar for excellence in a fledgling league.
He is also a local celebrity, really the only professional coach of a D.C. team who has embedded himself deeply in the District itself, lending support to local charities and championing D.C. voting rights.
“I go through the what-ifs,” Olsen reflects. “If I got fired tomorrow, would I be calling my agent like ‘Hey, get me back in a job next year, find me a job, I want interviews’? No. I wouldn’t.”
Olsen’s acceptance of whatever his fate may be shouldn’t be confused with nonchalance or indifference. He talks at length about the rigors of the job, the extremes of all of it—the feeling in his gut that won’t go away after a tough loss, the time he’s missed with his family. “It can beat you down,” he says.
“I think people only have so much energy, and if work takes away most of it, you come home and you’re less patient with the kids; reading a book at night is just a little bit harder. … It’s just easier to come home and bug out and watch TV and not play a board game with them. I feel like they’re short-changed on that. Certainly my wife is as well.”
Olsen’s youngest two kids hustle down the stairs and into the front yard, dumping out into a neighborhood that looks a little less recognizable everyday. Olsen has had a front seat to Shaw’s metamorphosis and grapples with the same issues that so many who’ve come to the city in the past couple of decades do.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions about it. I don’t really know how to process all of them. I certainly didn’t buy this house out of speculation. I thought it was a great, diverse neighborhood, I thought it had a great little park behind it. If we were going to raise a family, it was going to be an interesting place to lay down roots. I had no idea that this would pop like it has,” he says.
“But I also know a lot of people on this block that I’m close to that have different feelings about that. I try and be very sensitive to that, I understand their views, the views of people that have been on this block for a long time. I think there’s a lot of good arguments coming from them. All I can do is just try and be a good neighbor. I come from a small town in Pennsylvania where that usually wins out.”
On bad days, when city life becomes overwhelming and the summer heat becomes unbearable, he and Megan sometimes start looking at property in Maryland, or elsewhere. But those thoughts are typically short-lived.
“Then I walk out my door, and around the corner,” Olsen quips, “and I have a bourbon with my local bartender. And I feel full of life again.”
O St. Studios has been an artist’s space since the mid-’70s. Formerly a Hecht’s furniture factory, the warehouse is dripping in early 20th century craftsmanship and charm, something badly lacking from so many of the newer structures around it.
It sits on about as unvarnished a block as you’ll find in the area. Olsen saunters up to the front door of the building and swings it open. Nobody in the crowd gathered outside the nearby day shelter seems to be paying him much attention. His second-floor studio is a spacious, long, brick-walled room with hardwood floors. This place is Olsen’s third home, and maybe his one true escape. His work as a coach is all-consuming; his family life gobbles up the little time that remains. On rare occasions, like today—an off-day for the club—he can carve out an hour or two to enter his studio, where he paints.
“I started doing this when I started getting injured to keep myself from going crazy,” Olsen says. When those injuries forced him into coaching, Olsen lost the only other creative outlet he had—playing soccer.
The more time he spends here, the more time he works at his painting, the less enjoyable it gets. Olsen likens it to any other hobby—it’s relatively easy, and fun, to become proficient. To do the hard work, to truly become good, is a struggle.
Looking at three of Olsen’s works side-by-side, his evolution is apparent. The first, one of his earlier works, reads like a hybrid of an early Jackson Pollock and a Franz Kline. Flat, gray forms are layered over thick, black lines intertwining at random. There is color, too, and the canvas looks heavy, chaotic even.
Elements of that first painting remain in the second, but it’s a more focused work, something like a de Kooning, but a bit less figural. Blues, greens, and oranges peek out from behind a silver sheen, which masks much of the painting. There’s less movement and more color, fewer clearly defined lines.
The third of the three is a departure, with clearly defined fields of color, no heavy line work. A semi-circular shape, split down the middle, is set on top of a brown background. There is a flow, and your eyes are carried off the canvas by a thin band of white which emerges from the top of the piece.
“It’s toil,” Olsen says. “It’s hours of work sometimes. I want to still enjoy it. But when I find myself now going into that realm, where it’s less enjoyable, because it’s fucking hard, where you’re not just like, ‘Let’s throw something on the canvas and step back and do it again.’ To really get mature, it’s a huge amount of work.”