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One-on-One with Ben Olsen

U.S. National Team and D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen has seen a lot in seven years.  The 1999 Chevy Young Male Athlete of the Year has collected league championships, appeared for the U.S. in the 2000 Olympic Games, and had a promising national team career stunted by persistent injuries that sidelined him for nearly two years.  Now 27 and injury free, Olsen is coming off a championship season with United and is looking to reclaim a spot in Bruce Arena’s player pool. sat down with Olsen at the national team’s training camp headquarters to discuss his health, the meaning of loyalty, and what it means to him to be back with the U.S. MNT. First of all, it’s great to have you back …
Ben Olsen: “It’s actually very good to be back. I was thinking about this the other day. You take things for granted sometimes, like winning championships and coming in with the national team. Then you come into camp with the young talent that’s up and coming, and some older guys that have been to a World Cup, and you realize how nice to be back.” The first obvious question is, how you are feeling?
Ben Olsen: “I feel good. The first couple days were a little bit of a grind because of the fitness. Sometimes when you’re doing a lot of the fitness, the soccer suffers. I think that was the case with everyone, so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. After a couple days, the mind starts moving right and getting up to speed. I feel great. I feel a lot better than I did last January. Obviously, the last couple times I’ve been in camp, I’ve gone home through injury. That was disappointing, and I need to show the coaching staff here that I’m more of a durable player now. I feel like I am. Going through a whole season and managing myself physically is challenging, and it’s something that I’m getting better at as an older player.” For fans of U.S. Soccer and MLS, it seems like you have been around forever.  What is Ben Olsen the player like now as opposed to the MLS Rookie of the Year in 1998?
Ben Olsen: “I hope that he’s a smarter player.  I’m more well rounded player, and more consistent. Maybe that has something to do with playing in center midfield.  Playing there almost keeps you consistent, because you are so involved in both the attacking and defending elements of the game.  Sometimes when you’re on the flank the game kind of misses or you.  Most importantly, I’m enjoying the soccer more.” A lot of your fans appreciate some of your distinct qualities on the field, like your work rate, one-one-one skill, and quality crosses.  After all the injuries and setbacks, do you still feel like you have something to contribute at the international level?
Ben Olsen: “I still feel like I’m a good soccer player. I still think I can compete at the international level. Do I need to get fitter?  Do I need to be involved at this level more often to learn it again after a couple years? Yeah, I need to train and compete at this level. I don’t doubt that I can do it. The talent pool is so thick now. I think I would be a role player of some type, whether it is in center of the midfield or somewhere else. Look, I’m realistic. I don’t think I should be starting for the national team right now. I’ve got some catching up to do. But the opportunity to catch up and to re-learn the international game is an opportunity I want. How I can fit into that is up to the coaching staff. I have the opportunity right now to prove that I belong here.” D.C. United went through some very trying years, as did you on a personal level.  Do you find winning another MLS Cup, and getting through a season healthy rejuvenating?
Ben Olsen: “Winning always rejuvenates you, especially after a couple years of tough times at D.C. United. Not only were we losing, we weren’t putting a great product on the field.  Finally to have a team click like we did last year, on and off the field, just totally rejuvenates you with soccer.  I have to be honest.  For those three years when the ankle wasn’t doing well and we were losing, those were tough times.  Part of me at times was looking for other careers, thinking about what I’m going to do next. This last year has made me think more along the lines of how long I can play soccer. I want to do this for a long time. I want to do things I can to sustain my body and play another four years, five years, whatever it is.”  After seven years at D.C. United, you’re one of the few players in MLS who has remained with the same club through his entire career.  Do you feel a sense of loyalty and commitment to United?
Ben Olsen: “Absolutely. Even as I little kid, I’ve always admired guys that stayed at a club for the entire careers, especially in this day and age in other sports where it is so uncommon. MLS is a little different. Sometimes with salary cap issues, it hurts you to make too much money. To have been part of the old days of D.C. United, getting through the struggling times, and now hopefully the return of the winning ways is very special. It’s important to me to have been involved not just in the good times but in the lean times as well. If I had left during the down times, it would have been very difficult.  Now it’s so much more special, to have gone through those three years and to see these fans who suffered with us get the pride and satisfaction back from winning another championship. Getting the respect back that we had once is great. I feel it for my teammates, and myself but there’s also a real sense of community with D.C. United.  There are guys in the front office that I have known for seven years, and to get a chance to party with them after winning the MLS Cup and share in their joy is pretty special stuff.  You mentioned that you are enjoying the soccer more, and at the same time struggled through moments where you thought about quitting.  Have you reached a point where you’re at peace with ups and downs of your career?
Ben Olsen: “I’m trying to be, but it still kills me if I have a bad practice.  It still kills me if I’m not at the level that everyone else is.  There’s still that competitiveness; that’s just how it is.  Everyone here wants to be playing for the national team.  I think that drive is a good and a bad thing.  It’s bad because you take things home a little bit.  I would love to come off the practice field and separate soccer from the other parts of my life.  But I can’t do that yet.  When I was younger I let things go, and now I feel like I ponder on things more, especially after games.  I’m more at peace with soccer than I was before, because I’m more consistent.  I know who I am as a player, and I know what I can do and what I can’t do.  Even if I’m a little off in a game, I’m experienced enough to get through it and play at a pretty good level.” These are often difficult concepts to put into words, but do you still feel a sense of honor and pride in getting an opportunity to represent the United States?
Ben Olsen: “Of course. For me there’s absolutely pride. It’s easy to throw those words around, and maybe back in the day I didn’t have as much pride as I do now. That goes back to taking things for granted. The national team is above everything else. It’s playing at a high level. It’s getting treated like a king. It’s getting coached by, in my mind, the best coach we’ve ever had. So it’s a treat. It’s a lot of honor, and you should feel privileged. I think a lot of guys feel that. I think it’s important that the older guys display that pride and talk of that pride to the young guys.” Is there any doubt in your mind that you can make it back into the national team mix?
Ben Olsen: “There’s always doubt. I think it’s healthy. That doubt keeps me going a little bit. I’m not one of those guys who says ‘yeah, I’ll be there.’ I’m not that guy. To be on this team is not any easy thing. You’re dealing with the best players in the nation, and guys overseas who are playing on higher level teams than I am. Day in and day out they are playing against some of the best guys in the world, and that’s tough to catch up to.  That’s why I need to be involved in these camps and to be a part of international games in some way. That’s how you figure out if I should be here or if I shouldn’t. I haven’t done that in a while healthy, and now that I am, I’m ready to give it a go.”