For L.A., D.C. coaches, a family affair
Bruce Arena might know Ben Olsen better than anybody aside from Olsen's wife and parents. The Galaxy's coach is family, after all, a pivotal figure in the life and career of the iconic midfielder who is working diligently toward returning D.C. United to glory following last year's worst-in-the-league fiasco.
They'll meet up again Friday night at Home Depot Center, with the Galaxy (8-2-5) seeking their fifth straight win -- and fourth in a row by shutout -- and D.C. (4-4-3) looking to build on an impressive victory last weekend in Portland.
It's the third meeting between mentor and pupil -- the Galaxy won last September, after Olsen stepped in as interim coach following current Galaxy assistant coach Curt Onalfo's dismissal, and the teams tied in April -- and Arena, hardly the most emotional of coaches, admits this one means a little more.
"When you've been around the game as long as I have, you know everybody ...," Arena said after the Galaxy's training session Thursday. "Obviously, with Ben, it's a little unique, in that he's a little bit like family for me. That makes it fun."
Arena recruited Olsen, now 34, to play at the University of Virginia before he took charge at D.C. for Major League Soccer's inaugural season, in 1996, and drafted the midfielder to play for United in 1998, his final season with the club before he became the U.S. national team coach. Olsen won 35 of his 37 caps and played at the 2006 World Cup under Arena.
Olsen, a winger who reinvented himself as gritty central midfielder after ankle injuries sapped his speed, lived with Arena's family during his rookie year with United.
What was he like as a tenant?
"Rotten kid," Arena said, barely hiding a smile. "Used to drink beer in the basement with my son."
Gave him lots of chores, eh? Wash the dishes, mow the lawn?
"Nah, Ben wouldn't do anything like that. He's too elite."
Olsen, from just outside Harrisburg, Pa., chose Virginia over Harvard, Arena said.
"Ben's a bright guy," Arena said. "But certainly, he had aspirations of playing professional soccer and chose maybe the safer path athletically in terms of trying to become a professional, and give him credit. He had a great career, concluded with a World Cup appearance. Fabulous. I'm not sure he would have been able to do that if he went to Harvard. He'd probably be a U.S. senator if he went to Harvard.
"I don't know if that's good or bad. The way I'm watching politics today, he probably made the right choice."
Olsen was a savvy and emotional leader in a dozen years as a player for D.C., but Arena admits he never thought he'd become a coach.
"I think he's a guy with a lot of skills and likely would have a lot of options ...," Arena said. "But it probably ended a little bit earlier than he would have liked [because of injuries], so he wasn't fully able to walk away from the game."
How's he doing?
"He's done a real good job. They're in a rebuilding year, they're playing a lot of young players -- it says a lot for Ben's ability to organize a team, evaluate talent and motivate the group. Obviously, to date, they're doing well."
GONE, NOT FORGOTTEN: The Galaxy tackles most of the next month without its captain and best player, midfielder/forward Landon Donovan, and reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Donovan Ricketts, who are away for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which kicks off Sunday. (Actually, Ricketts is hardly away -- Jamaica's national team is in a So Cal hotel in advance of its tournament opener Monday against Caribbean rival Grenada at HDC.)
The best-case scenario: Donovan and the U.S. against Ricketts and the Reggae Boyz in the June 25 final at the Rose Bowl.
"We're prepared to have both those guys playing in the final," Arena said. "I don't know if that's possible [Ed.: it is] and I'm not sure anyone's betting on that [Ed: they're not], but we will see."
Donovan leads MLS with eight goals, one more than he scored all of last season, and Ricketts has again been among the elite netminders in the league. What does the Galaxy lose with them gone?
"They're very important players for the team. Everybody knows about their individual abilities," said forward Juan Pablo Angel. "Building a team is about that, being able to replace those individuals when they're missing, when they're not able to play. When we are missing some important players, the players who come on have to perform well. And we have to do it. It's part of the game. It's part of the circumstances that everybody [in MLS] is going to have."
Donovan is a prime contender for MLS's Player of the Month award for May -- balloting ends Friday; he got our vote -- and an early favorite to win his second MVP award.
"Landon has been terrific," Angel said. "I'm sure we're going to miss his ability, but having said that, we've got to be able to replace it as good as we can, with players with different abilities that probably offer a different style to the team, but we have to get results. That's important."
MISSING: Aside from Donovan and Ricketts, there's center backs Leonardo and Sean Alvarado, both out for the year with torn knee ligaments. Forward Adam Cristman, questionable as he returns from a knee injury, is the only other L.A. player on the league injury report.
WORTH NOTING: New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe, not Arena, was chosen to guide the MLS side against Manchester United in the July 27 All-Star Game in Harrison, N.J. The decision was made because Backe won't have to travel for run training sessions. Arena coached the All-Stars against Man United last year in Houston but missed the training sessions leading to the game while with L.A. ... Angel reports that his family has finally joined him in L.A. and he's living in a house after spending months in a hotel. Angel, who has two children, got situated while L.A. was in Massachusetts for last weekend's game against the Revolution and as Arena gave the team three days off this week. ... The Galaxy has scored just once in 11 of 15 games. ... D.C. rallied for a 1-1 draw against the Galaxy on April 9 in Washington, with Charlie Davies winning (with a dive) and converting an 89th-minute penalty kick to share the points. ... French forward Djibril Cisse, who plays in Greece for Panathinaikos, visited the Galaxy's training session Thursday.
- Olsen, who took charge last August on an interim basis and given the job for real during the offseason, was a passionate and well-loved midfielder. He was a fairly speedy winger until ankle injuries slowed him and a solid central defender later in his career, almost all of which was spent at D.C.
Three key players
- Davies was a shoo-in starter for the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup until suffering major injuries in a deadly October 2009 car crash. He's making his comeback with D.C., on loan from France's Sochaux, and has six goals (on just 13 shots) in nine appearances. He's missed the past game and a half with a hamstring strain, but might return Friday.
- Winger Andy Najar, just 18, is one of the two or three most explosive attacking players in MLS, and he was the league's rookie of the year last year because of it. He committed to Honduras' national team, rather than the U.S., and wasn't happy to be left off his native land's Gold Cup roster.
- Yorba Linda's Chris Pontius, finally past a hamstring injury that slowed him all of last season, has been exceptional on the left flank, creating havoc for opposing defenses and scoring four goals, second-best on the team.
- MLS's worst team last season endured a difficult start to the season, following an opening-day win over Columbus with a one-win-in-five games stretch (and that win was over abysmal Toronto FC). D.C. is unbeaten in its last four games, with wins over Seattle and last weekend at Portland (the Timbers' first home MLS defeat) and draws with reigning MLS Cup champ Colorado and runner-up FC Dallas.
- Pontius played at Servite High School in Anaheim, for Irvine Strikers and at UC Santa Barbara. ... Forward Joseph Ngwenya began his pro career in L.A., playing for the Galaxy in 2005-06. ... Goalkeeper Steve Cronin spent four seasons with the Galaxy, was their starter in 2008. ... Midfielder Santino Quaranta played six games for L.A. in 2007, before heading into drug rehab. ... Midfielder Dax McCarty's younger brother, Dustin, is a Galaxy rookie. ... Davies' family lives in San Diego.
- Center back Dejan Jakovic is off with Canada's national team for the Gold Cup, and D.C. is drowning in injuries. Out are Quaranta (concussion), fellow midfielders Branko Boskovic (torn ACL) and Junior Carreiro (sprained ankle), and defenders Marc Burch (hamstring strain), Devon McTavish (concussion) and Jed Zayner (hamstring strain). Midfielder Kurt Morsink (sprained ankle) is listed as questionable, and Davies (hamstring strain) and McCarty (groin strain) are probable.
At Home Depot Center (Carson, Calif.), 8 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Deportes
Radio: ESPN Deportes (KWKW-AM/1330, Spanish)
Referee: Silviu Petrescu