U.S. Soccer's Ben Olsen Will Be Remembered for What He Symbolized
Ben Olsen announced his retirement earlier this week. He retires with a number of accolades: having played the most continuous games for his MLS club, DC United (I'm not quite sure how to rank that accolade), 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year, second in games played and started for United, third in assists, seventh in goals, and winning Comeback Player of the Year, this year, the year he decided to retire.
Many of his fans and admirers responded with anecdotes from his career, most notably his hat trick against the New York Red Bulls in 2007. I have my own as well.
But as soon as I read Olsen's comments as he retired, in particular his comment that "It spooked me a little bit, it spooked my wife, the way I couldn't carry my child down the stairs at times. You come to a crossroads: At what cost do you come back and play? I don't want to play another season at the cost of damaging my ankle even further. It's damaged enough," that the comparisons to other athletes (NHL's Cam Neely) and the search for what Olsen's soccer career, influence and impact actually meant.
Neely is a great place to begin. At Neely's retirement announcement he mentioned his inability to race his ten year old brother-in-law from the front of a movie theater to the corner as the moment when he realized he would retire. The eerie parallel doesn't end there. Cam Neely became the prototype for the most successful type of hockey player in the NHL, big build, but the skill and accuracy to score as well as a physical force.
Similarly, Olsen is the prototype for the most successful export for American soccer: the outside midfielder with a mixture of technical ability, speed, and a tremendous work ethic. Landon Donovan, early Clint Dempsey, Benny Feilhaber and to a lesser extent, DeMarcus Beasley come from this mold. The list could go on indefinitely as Bobby Convey, Justin Mapp, Stuart Holden, and Robbie Rogers all have exhibited play much like the early Ben Olsen.
It could be argued that the Olsen template is how the outside midfield is played, but Cristiano Ronaldo isn't this type of player nor Lionel Messi. What Olsen offered the United States was a resume of attributes that would be a valuable asset to any team, anywhere in the world, if they didn't already have that option, and most importantly, Olsen proved that the American system could develop this type of field player (and a lot easier than trying to develop the next Messi or Ronaldo, something a perennial soccer powerhouse country would have trouble doing). Olsen seemed to personify the gifts that U.S. soccer players can reproduce with a little more ease than other countries.
Why? I'm not really sure. And yes, other countries do produce well-rounded midfield players like this and better than American players (Franck Ribery for example), but many midfielders tend to specialize: play-maker, dribbler, speedster, or defensive cover. Nevertheless, for the right team at the right time, an American player with a basic mastery of soccer fundamentals can be had for a cheap price. Olsen gave the U.S. the formula for its most oft-produced soccer export outside of the goal area.
*Some individuals would argue that the United States has produced more defenders that have played overseas than midfielders, but the struggles and less notable European careers of many defenders tips the argument in favor of midfield players. Keep in mind, after all that DaMarcus Beasley has been through, he is still peddling his wares in Europe.
Even without his career altering ankle injury, it is likely that Olsen's career would have been cut short in the end. Like many other athletes, he realized that he could compete by sacrificing his body much like tennis' Rafael Nadal.
So like Nadal's developing injuries, it was inevitable that Olsen would develop his own set of physical ailments (he had an ankle injury before the one that prompted his first round of ankle surgeries, required surgery on his other ankle, and had issues with one of his knees). What most fans admired in Olsen's play, ended up shortening his career.
And the comparison's don't end there. Olsen was forced to change his style of play once he returned from injury. He had lost the speed that was integral to his wing game, and if he was to have a career, he needed to adapt.
Just like Boxing's Muhammad Ali recognizing in his old age that he didn't need to dance and could sit back, take a punch, and wait for an opponent to tire, or like basketball's Michael Jordan developing the fade away once he lost a step, Olsen learned to use his experience and intelligence to make up for his physical losses, all the while never altering his "never give up" mentality.
*I understand Olsen never had the skill set of Ali or Jordan or he would have played for the best teams in Europe and gone down as one of the best soccer players of all time, but the ability to adapt as an athlete ages separates journeymen athletes from the ones that had an impact on the game. For Olsen, I'm referring to American soccer in particular, not the international game.
My Ben Olsen anecdote has to do with the second phase of his career.
It was June 28, 2007 and the U.S. was playing Argentina in the Copa America. Bruce Arena had resigned by then, and Bob Bradley was attempting to make a case for himself as the rightful choice for manager. There was a lot on the line for the team. The U.S. had played well in the Gold Cup, but against some questionable sides outside of the Mexican national team. Few had any realistic evaluation of the USMNT. So the Copa America tournament gave the team an opportunity to test itself against elite opposition.
Unfortunately, Bradley had opted for a mostly B squad of players to the dismay of the Copa America organizers (we were invited as guests, so there was no tangible incentive to field the best team.) and fans. Expectations were low for most. It was clear that the tournament was to be used to evaluate U.S. pool players that had not seen much playing time recently. As far as how the A team would play against the best in the world, U.S. fans would have to wait until the Confederations Cup, but no one had told Ben Olsen little was expected of his side.
The U.S. came out and took an early lead on a penalty that Eddie Johnson put away. At half, surprisingly, the United States B team was tied with Argentina 1-1.
*I keep labeling this U.S. team as a 'B' team, and for the most part they were at the time. Demerit, Feilhaber, and Clark played in the game, but at the time, they were not staples of the USMNT. For context, this is before Feilhaber had his falling out with Bradley and would not see consistent playing time for another year.
For over a half, the aged, slow, past-his-prime Ben Olsen shut down the key to the Argentinean attack, Lionel Messi. I don't know if a single person outside of Olsen's immediate family believed he could shut down one of the top five best players in the world, but he did. He was subbed out in the 62 minute for Eddie Gaven; a player that the entire USSF federation was attempting to groom.
The U.S. went on to lose 4-1.
In large part, the U.S. lost as no one on the pitch could contain Messi. Marvel Wynne, the defender left alone to subdue Messi, was too inexperienced and gave up too much room for the player to maneuver, and two minutes later, Messi sent a pass to Crespo to take the lead and open the floodgates.
While Olsen would probably choose a more sentimental moment, like his World Cup cap, or a more prolific moment like his hat trick, I can't think of a more significant instance in his career that summed up so much.
First, his performance exemplified his most important value as a player. No matter what the situation, Olsen would find a way to be relevant in a match. This seems to be a reoccurring comment when people describe their impressions of him as a player. He's labeled as an inspiration, a leader, an integral piece of the team. He must have been as he received consistent playing time even without scoring a multitude of goals or amassing a ton of assists during the second half of his career with DC United.
Secondly, Olsen made a statement about the successful MLS player: even on the international stage, strong players can play a competitive role. It didn't mean that MLS players were going to set the world on fire, but they could be useful in the right team and the right system.
Third, Olsen gave the team stability, albeit a brief, sixty minute period of stability and competitiveness. He reminded fans to be patient, that the U.S. team will have its ups and downs, but there are good players out there; we just have to work out the kinks. A brief respite for any overzealous fan that looks at every game, every play and pass as life and death.
Finally, he pointed out the flaws that the national team is still struggling with today. It's well known that Bob Bradley has issues with timely substitutions and inability to recognize the value, tactics, and roles a number of his players can make.
His substitution raised questions about the USSF selection and developmental system by highlighting the failure of the "Eddie Gaven Experiment"; a player-one of many-coddled and protected by the establishment because of his highly touted potential, and as of yet to reach it. How could a forgotten player outperform an up and coming American star in the making?
It forced discussion about the selection process for Generation Adidas (formerly Project-40), the Bradenton Academy, the make-up of the U-16 and U-17 teams and the allocation of their resources.
*Again, I recognize that Ben Olsen was also discovered and developed through Project-40, although I question how much of an impact Project-40 had on his career as he had already played three years at UVA and went immediately into the MLS as soon as he finished up at the college level.
Also, Olsen, after his ankle injuries, was no longer a constant member of the national team while Eddie Gaven, whether in or out of form, was being groomed for a spot on both Bruce Arena's and Bob Bradley's roster. Even though Gaven was never able to earn a consistent spot on the U.S. roster, Olsen had no business out-performing a USSF darling.
Supposedly, Olsen's personal life mirrored his professional one. Starting out cocky, arrogant, and self-centered, either through experience, hardship, or family (i.e. having children of his own) he became a kind, unselfish, humanitarian, ready to give to the community and to treat individuals with respect and dignity.
That's what his legacy does. Every time his name is mentioned, all that happened during his career is referenced. Olsen was one of the first groomed from the beginning to play at the professional level, either overseas or in the burgeoning MLS. The Eric Wynalda, John Harkes, Claudio Reyna generation was forced to do it through college, minor league, regional American soccer teams and overseas.
Olsen was part of the generation when it all changed, when there was a concerted effort by everyone involved to create a true, nationally organized American soccer identity that could play competitive, consistent, professional soccer.
When his name is mentioned, even though he was injured and did not make the 2002 World Cup roster, it is mentioned alongside Clint Mathis, Landon Donovan, and Brian McBride...as players that forced the world to pay attention and prepare when facing the United States Men's National Team...at least for a short period of time.
As American fans, analysts and coaches discuss Ben Olsen, it won't only be about his career, but how to measure oneself. He is a barometer of where American soccer was, where it is, and where it has to go. He reminds us that we must constantly adapt, evolve, and commit everything we have to the goal. Those are pretty admirable ideals to embody.
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