Ben Olsen knows the Open Cup.
The ups and downs. The chaos. And, of course, the glory.
“It’s just nice to keep on keepin’ on in this thing,” said the Houston Dynamo boss – a former Open Cup winner as a player and a coach with D.C. United. “That’s what it’s all about. Moving on. Surviving. It’s always a wild ride and no matter what, if you want to win, you have to hang in there.”
“It’s always interesting,” Olsen added with a sigh.
Interesting. It’s a word he uses a lot. And it seems to contain an infinity of meanings. Especially when talk turns to how he and his D.C. United won the Open Cup in 2013, mired in last-place in MLS, to salvage what would have been an irredeemable season of misery.
“Winning it [the Cup] in 2013 saved my job,” said the 46 year-old Houston Dynamo boss about his famous run a decade ago as a young coach. “It was a horrible season. Everything spiraled away from us. But the Open Cup kept us together as a group and gave us a north star during really, really tough times.
“It adds up when you have so many losses in a row,” he said about a season he calls “fascinating” and his “most valuable” as a leader. “The Cup kept us from imploding.”
Olsen started resting players in league games that year so they’d be fit and ready for the midweek Cup games – where hope still sprang forth. And the opportunity to win a trophy in a year defined by hardship (three wins, 24 losses and no chance at the playoffs) was all-important for the former USMNT midfielder.
“He [Olsen] was the master at motivating players,” remembered Bill Hamid, a young goalkeeper for D.C. United in that Cup-winning year who was named man of the match in the Final, played away at Real Salt Lake and won 1-0 by the visitors. “He’s got that heart of a lion.”
Hamid calls the Open Cup Final win in Salt Lake “one of the biggest moments” of his career and he puts most of the credit for it at the feet of Olsen.
The coach is hoping his master-class motivational abilities can help provide a similar “moment for glory” for Houston Dynamo. It’s something that’s important to him. It was as a player, as part of the all-conquering D.C. United sides of the late 90s and early 2000s, and it remains so to this day.
“Trophies talk,” said Olsen, in charge of a Dynamo team that ran the gamut in the 2023 Open Cup so far – a win away at lower-league opposition (Tampa Bay Rowdies) “that could have gone either way” and two more at home in games influenced by red cards (1-0 down a man over Sporting Kansas City and 4-0 up a man over Minnesota United). “When the fans see you holding a trophy, it’s special.
“And that doesn’t go away,” he added.
“I’m romantic about the Open Cup,” admitted Olsen, whose Dynamo are currently clinging to the final playoff spot (9th) in MLS’ western conference. “It could be improved, but I’d hate to see it go away.”
Fans of the Dynamo also know the distinct charms of the Open Cup. They watched their 2018 captain, DaMarcus Beasley, mark his retirement-game by lifting the trophy into the hot air of the downtown Shell Energy Stadium with a rookie-year gleam in his eyes.
‘Eye to the Future’
The result saved then-coach Wilmer Cabrera’s job in a season in which the Dynamo missed the playoffs. It also gave the club’s fans a taste of winning something for the first time since 2006 and 2007 when they won back-to-back MLS titles.
It’s no surprise then that Olsen – a man who uses the word glory considerably more than some of his other favorites – sees an opportunity here in 2023. “They’ve experienced it here [the fans, winning the Open Cup] and so it resonates for them. They know what it’s all about and what it means.”
Up next for the Dynamo, led on the field by captain and Mexico hero Hector Herrera and striker Corey Baird, who scored a hat-trick in the last round against the Loons of Minnesota, is a Quarterfinal against the Chicago Fire.
It’s a club on a similar trajectory to Houston’s – a once-lordly MLS powerhouse in need of an adrenaline shot. The Fire won four Open Cups and one MLS crown between 1998 and 2006 and, with former hero Frank Klopas in charge again, now have a chance for a first piece of silverware in a full decade.
“They’re [the Fire] redefining themselves too,” said Olsen. “Houston and Chicago are both organizations that have had success but over the last decade haven’t been good enough. Not always getting into the playoffs, not raising trophies like they used to – we’re on parallel paths.
“Sure, you want to hold onto the past…but always with an eye to the future.”
Since it’s the Cup, only one of them can win the Quarterfinal (on Tuesday June 6th at 8:30pm ET and LIVE on CBS Sports Golazo Network) in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Creating a Culture
There’s a certain amount of hang-on-for-dear-life energy in the Open Cup. Ask Olsen about the arithmetic that plays into the next game and he’ll shrug and half-laugh. “Home to Austin, away to Vancouver, straight to St Louis and then to Chicago…and then home to LAFC. That’s the equation…
“Each game changes the way you look at the next one and you can’t overthink it,” added Olsen, who, you get the sense, might be a fan of roller-coaster rides.
“We want to create a culture of winning here,” he said, his momentum building toward what can only be described as words of inspiration. “Winning helps. Each win matters – so does getting into the Last Eight or the Last Four and competing for Cups. We don’t have the luxury of not thinking every game is a chance to push this club forward.”
Now, having survived the required “wild ride” of the first few rounds, the competitive instincts always alive in Olsen take over on the cusp of a place in the Semifinals. “We’re in the business of winning. We’re competitive people and we can smell an opportunity to raise a Cup.”
“You only get so many chances for that in a career, if you’re lucky,” added Olsen, giving a low-gear glimpse of that motivating thunder he’s known for. “A lot of players go their whole career and never get the chance for that one night of glory.
“It’s rare,” he concluded, with a knowing echo in his voice. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those nights, and you don’t want to let them slip away.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.