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Surrounded by masters, the rookie is king

11/11/2012
The resurgence of D.C. United this season has been a wonderful subplot; can coach Ben Olsen keep it going? 

It's off to the MLS symphony, dressed in resplendent finery. For most of this year's sideline conductors, this is old hat -- they've been to plenty of these concerts before. They've gone through the rituals of preparation. They know what to do when they get there and how to navigate the treachery of the unforeseen instrument malfunctions or unavailable first chairs. In several previous excursions to the biggest event of the year, they've come home with a big trophy as tangible proof of their mastery.

For Sigi Schmid, Bruce Arena and Dominic Kinnear, there's absolutely nothing new about reaching the last four of the MLS Cup playoffs. Between them, the three have seven MLS Cup titles -- 44 percent of all postseason titles the league has ever handed out. All are obvious candidates for an MLS Mount Rushmore of coaching.

Meanwhile, the man in charge at D.C. United is getting his first taste of playoff drama as an MLS head coach. Ben Olsen has been to the festivities before but never as the conductor; though his experience as one of the component parts of an MLS orchestra is rich, it doesn't have much bearing on his ability to lead from the sideline. Heading into the Eastern Conference finals against one of the acknowledged masters (Houston's Dominic Kinnear), Olsen stands out as the one coach in the group charting new personal territory.

Furthermore, the simple fact that he and his team have reached this point is something of a surprise.

For example, this wasn’t even supposed to be Ben Olsen's team. After retiring from his playing career in 2009, Olsen moved into coaching under new United head coach Curt Onalfo but when Onalfo failed to revive the team in the first half of 2010, Olsen took over as interim manager -- somewhat against his instincts -- and finished out a dismal campaign that saw D.C. United finish with the lowest point total in the league.

For a franchise not only used to winning but competing for championships, the 2010 season was the nadir of a decline that started after the team's last playoff appearance in 2007. Changes, and drastic ones, were certainly in the offing.

In the immediate aftermath of that season, club president Kevin Payne addressed Olsen’s interim status and the potential for the young coach to take over the club on a permanent basis. Though there was doubt -- "I don't think he is ready," Payne told the Washington Post -- Payne hired Olsen full-time for the 2011 MLS season.

Whether because of a lack of viable candidates, the potential cost of a bigger name, Olsen's own force of will or some combination of the above, the United midfield legend would soon get a chance to prove himself as a coach without a qualifying interim tag. In his first full season, Olsen led United to a small improvement over the 2010 debacle. A midseason trade for eventual league MVP Dwayne DeRosario in 2011 changed the look of the team but injuries and erratic form kept United out of the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

Yet the road to the playoffs this season -- D.C. faces Houston in the East finals, beginning Sunday -- in 2012 followed a path few could have foreseen. United held its own through the spring and into the summer, but DeRosario's injury in early September threatened to derail the campaign. At that moment, Olsen's maturation as a head coach came into full focus; without DeRosario in the middle to provide a consistent offensive threat, United changed their approach, valuing the ball less and keeping the other team off the scoresheet more.

Olsen shifted Andy Najar from midfield to defense, a move aided by the emergence of rookie Nick DeLeon on the wing. With DeRosario missing, more of the offensive burden shifted to Chris Pontius. Though it made United much more one-dimensional in attack, DeLeon’s contributions were enough for United to be effective. Perry Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa fused in the center of midfield to shut down opponents. Kitchen in particular had an excellent second half of the season, growing into a defensive midfield role after being forced into a centerback spot in 2011, his rookie year.

Above all else it's the tandem of Kitchen and Saragosa, favored by Olsen down the stretch and into the playoffs, that embodies how much more United has become a truer reflection of its coach.

Olsen was known for his own gritty defensive contributions in midfield over a 12-year career and when the time came for United to morph into a team that put defense over offense, Olsen already had the hard-working, physical center forward he needed to hold up play and serve as an outlet for a midfield not adept at knocking around the ball. In early August, D.C. traded for Philadelphia Union forward Lionard Pajoy, a move that seems nearly prescient in light of DeRosario's injury a month later. Olsen knew that a run to the MLS Cup would require tried-and-true methods: the combination of defensive soccer and opportunistic offense that has been so successful throughout MLS history. In other words, Olsen took his cues from Schmid, Arena and Kinnear.

Granted, it took a bit of luck -- and the mindless encroachment of Thierry Henry on Kenny Cooper’s penalty kick -- to get D.C. United to the Eastern Conference finals and the doorstep of its first MLS Cup final berth since 2004. But those other coaches, the ones with all the Cup-winning expertise and the plaudits for winning them, also have enjoyed their fair share of luck over the years. Olsen's outwardly calm and confident demeanor got D.C. to this point, but a conscious shift of philosophy kept his side afloat without its best player.

Now he faces off with Kinnear, a man whose predominance as an MLS playoffs-adept head coach will challenge everything that Olsen as learned. As if that task wasn't hard enough, Olsen will be without starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid for the first leg and Honduran right back Andy Najar (suspended for throwing the ball at referee Jair Marrufo in the first game vs. New York) for both games of the series. De Rosario's status is unclear but even if the midfielder returns, it remains to be seen if reinserting him into the lineup would give United a better chance to win.

United has done just fine without DeRosario for the better part of three months. Maybe that's because Ben Olsen is getting the hang of this conducting gig. And as he heads into the final four with the biggest coaching names the league has to offer, maybe he'll be the one to bring home the big trophy as evidence of his own growing mastery.

Jason Davis is an independent soccer writer and podcaster. He talks American soccer twice weekly on The Best Soccer Show and writes on the same around the Internet. He can be found on Twitter at @davisjsn and at matchfitusa@gmail.com.