As a player, Ben Olsen reached some of soccer’s highest peaks. At UVA, he helped the Cavaliers win an ACC championship, was named the ACC Tournament MVP and was the 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year. On the international front, he helped the U.S. vie for Olympic bronze in 2000 and was a steady contributor on the 2006 U.S. World Cup team.
As a pro with D.C. United, his honors ranged from Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year in 1998 to hoisting two MLS championship trophies.
As a coach, Olsen now wants his players to know similar heights.
“I’ve had so many wonderful memories as a player. Now I’m in charge of making sure the players have similar memories,” he says.
In November, Olsen (Col ’99) was named head coach of D.C. United, the team he played with since day one as a pro. At age 33, he is the youngest head coach in MLS history.
“I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m very humbled to be in the position, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get this club where it belongs, and that’s competing consistently for the MLS Cup.”
He has his work cut out for him. The “Black and Red” finished in the conference cellar last year. But an infusion of new blood, such as last year’s Rookie of the Year Andy Najar, and the acquisition of talented veterans such as Joseph Ngwenya bode well for improvement.
Olsen knows being a great player doesn’t guarantee being a good coach. He can identify with what players go through but now must manage broader responsibilities. “I want what most coaches want—I want to win. And I want to win the right way. In an ideal world, I want to play attractive soccer. I want to play with a little flair,” Olsen says. “But if you’re not doing the part as far as team defense, it’s just pretty soccer.”
Olsen’s achievement as youngest coach is one of many groundbreaking contributions by UVA players and coaches. Two decades ago, John Harkes (Col ’89), now an ESPN soccer analyst, became the first American ever to play in the English Premier League. Bruce Arena not only won five NCAA titles as UVA’s head coach but also went on to become the most successful U.S. national team coach. One of his stalwarts was midfielder Claudio Reyna (Col ’95), who in 2002 became the first American named to a FIFA World Cup All-Star team.
“UVA has its stamp all over the world of soccer right now,” Olsen says. “[UVA] had a huge influence on me. Part of that is the people that I’ve come across, starting with the grandfather, so to speak, of this whole deal in Bruce Arena.”
Arena now is head coach of Los Angeles Galaxy, which won the MLS Western Conference last year. The two teams expect to clash this summer, and when young Olsen takes on “grandfather” Arena, more memories are sure to be made.