D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen has returned to national team fold after a nearly two-year absence due to a series of ankle injuries. The 25-year old made his first appearance in spectacular fashion, scoring the game-winning goal in the 2-0 win against El Salvador last November. Having appeared for the United States at every level, beginning with the U-18's, Olsen is set to resume regular duties for both club and country. ussoccer.com talked to Olsen about finally getting healthy, how is perspective on soccer has changed, and his future with the U.S. national team...
ussoccer.com: You've been injury-free now for about six months. You must be very exited about being able to get back to work on a consistent basis...
Ben Olsen: "I'm very excited to be back, no question. At the same time, it's a little bit of a struggle with little injuries here and there. It's going to take some to get back to where I was, including the mental aspects of the game. I see improvement every day, and I'm almost getting to the point where I'm playing the way I was playing. In certain aspects, I think I'm a better player for having sat out so long."
ussoccer.com: In what aspects?
Ben Olsen: "I never really watched the game, and when you sit for a year and a half, you watch a lot of soccer. You realize a lot more about the game, about the way people play off you, and play off others. What you can do better out there, and be able to critique other players and help improve their game as well. Overall, watching a sport helps anyone get a different perspective."
ussoccer.com: For a player like you, who has the mentality of going 110 percent all the time, how difficult is it to have to learn to pace yourself?
Ben Olsen: "That's one of the things I've learned. I still go 100 percent the whole game, but maybe you pick your spots if you can relax at a certain moment when it's not going to hurt you or the team. You don't need to waste energy, and for me right now it's beneficial. I also have to be smarter about taking a day off now and then. Just because I sit out, it doesn't mean I'm hurt, it just means that sometimes the ankle gets a little sore and I need a break. It's a difficult thing to accept mentally. No one likes to sit out, especially since I've sat out so long, but part of being a good professional is knowing how to manage yourself and your body. I have definitely learned to treat my body and the game with a little more respect. Sometimes it takes an injury to understand certain things."
ussoccer.com: How have the last couple months with the National Team helped your progress?
Ben Olsen: "It's exactly what I needed. It's been a fitness-based camp, which is important for my improvement. It's also important for me to get as many touches as I can. These double days have been great for that. To come in here right away and be put under the strains of the National Team environment, with players who are extremely talented and extremely hungry, it throws you right in the with the wolves, and you either adapt or you don't. So far I've done pretty well."
ussoccer.com: Having had the opportunity to be involved with the national team program at different stages of your career, how is the environment different?
Ben Olsen: "Before I always felt like some little kid on the national team. I was just fortunate to be up here playing with all these great players ahead of me, and it was flattering just to be invited. Now, I feel like I have to make my stamp, instead of just doing my job. It's time for me to become a player on this team, and if I don't step up, I don't deserve to be here."
ussoccer.com: You've been used in several positions on the field here, anywhere from forward, to wide midfielder, to attacking midfielder. Where do you feel most comfortable on the field?
Ben Olsen: "I love playing behind the forwards. It's an enjoyable role, especially for the way I am, since it gives me a little bit of freedom. But I enjoy playing forward, and I enjoy playing wide midfield, too. I'll fit in where I can on this team, and maybe that's to my advantage. There's two ways you can look at. You can fit in different positions, but on the other side you don't really get to learn the trade if you're not in one spot all of the time. In the long run, though, I think it's good to be versatile because it allows you get different perspectives on the game."
ussoccer.com: Switching gears to your club team. There's been some pretty radical changes at D.C. United in the offseason. What do you think D.C. United will look like in 2003?
Ben Olsen: "Your guess is as good as mine. It really is going to be an interesting season. A lot of these things depend on how the team gels. We've got a lot of personalities on this team now, which I think is something that was missing last year. We have some fighters on this team now. Dema Kovalenko is a nice player. Stoitchkov adds some leadership. I think Earnie Stewart is going to come in here with great energy and provide us a proven finisher, and he's also a great leader. The potential is definitely exciting. We owe the fans there a lot more than they've been getting, and hopefully we'll get on the right track this year. I feel like it's our time again."
ussoccer.com: You've now become one of the longest serving members of D.C. United, playing through the glory years as well as trying to survive the struggle of the last few seasons. What has the experience taught you about life in the sport of soccer?
Ben Olsen: "It's interesting. Sometimes it's difficult when you come into a team like D.C. and you're always winning. You have this great team, and you think to yourself 'Wow, professional soccer is really perfect.' You think you're just going to keep on winning for 10 years. Then, all of a sudden, salary cap issues come up, injuries happen, players leave, and things start to unravel. You don't understand it. The main thing you realize is which people get through that; which guys don't fall over and start pointing fingers instead of just trying to work through it. I learned that you won't have success your entire career, that you have to deal with the ups and downs. On the other hand, I know we won't lose for 10 years either."
ussoccer.com: At this point in your career, you have to be looking at Germany in 2006 as your big opportunity to play in a World Cup. How do you go about trying to achieve that goal?
Ben Olsen: "No question this is my chance to get in a World Cup. For that to happen, I need to do two things. First, stay healthy. Second, I need to be in as many of these camps as possible and continue to do well. I have to play consistently, not just this year but over the next three years. To make our World Cup team is definitely a possibility for me. If I didn't think so I wouldn't be here."
ussoccer.com: With your previous success with United and the national team level, and now having survived the struggles of the ankle injuries and the tough years at D.C., do you have a greater appreciation every time you have the opportunity to wear the national team jersey?
Ben Olsen: "Absolutely. You take things for granted when you haven't tasted failure. When I got injured, my life hadn't suddenly become bad for me. I was still alive and still healthy. I just couldn't play the game I loved. So, I wouldn't say I had this big traumatic experience. Having said that, I missed soccer. It's a creative outlet for me, and when I did come back it was nice to be able to explore that outlet back in my life and use that energy."
ussoccer.com: So when you didn't have soccer as an outlet, how did you channel that energy to other places?
Ben Olsen: "I'm going to get killed for this. I started to do a lot of painting. You have so much creative energy, and I wasn't happy when I was sitting around watching t.v. all day, so I went out and bought a couple canvassas and really getting into it. It gave me a release for about a year. Now that I'm playing again, it's been really tough to try and paint again. I think I only have some much of that energy in me, and it's focused back on soccer. Also, painting is a cheap way to fill up the walls on a new apartment..."
ussoccer.com: Despite all of your experiences at the club and international level, is it still exciting to get the pportunity to play a team like Argentina?
Ben Olsen: "I'm excited. No disrespect to El Salvador or Canada, but this is a big game. Although it won't be Bastituta or Ortega out there, it will be a team of young, hungry players just like us who are fighting for places in their national team. They're going to be very talented, and it's a good test for us. We'll see how we match up."
ussoccer.com: Does this group of guys walk out on the field expecting to win?
Ben Olsen: "Yes. One of the effects of the team's performance in the World Cup is instilling the belief in the American players that we are capable of beating anyone. That's the attitude we all have. The success in Korea also imparts the responsibility on you that you have to work your tails off and represent well every time you step on the field for the National Team."
ussoccer.com: Four years ago no one would have expected an all-MLS team to win the Gold Cup, or to walk onto the field against Argentina with people expecting a result. Have you seen a dramatic improvement in the level of players?
Ben Olsen: "I think the results speak for themselves. There's been huge commitments from people like U.S. Soccer, Nike, MLS, IMG and others who have put a great deal of money and effort to get us to this point. We've by no means arrived in the soccer world, but it's gotten better, and it's gotten better fast."