Ben Olsen knows the Open Cup.
The ups and downs. The chaos. And, of course, the glory.
“You just have to keep on keepin’ on in this thing,” said the Houston Dynamo boss – a former Open Cup winner as a player and coach with D.C. United and now back in another Final with a chance to upset presumed favorites Inter Miami on September 27th. “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 midweek Cup action – 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 and Man of the Match in the Final played away at Real Salt Lake and won 1-0 by the underdog visitors. “He’s got that heart of a lion.”
Hamid calls that Open Cup Final win “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 now. A Semifinal win at home over that same Real Salt Lake club set up a Final date between Olsen’s gritty Texas outfit and Lionel Messi’s all-of-a-sudden super team Inter Miami.
The Open Cup’s ability – unique in American sports – to be a launching pad for outsiders and cinderellas is important to Olsen. He valued the tournament as a player, as part of the all-conquering D.C. United sides of the late 90s and early 2000s, and he still does so to this day.
“Trophies talk,” said Olsen, in charge of a Dynamo team that ran the gamut in this 2023 Open Cup – 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, after racking up a blowout win on the road against the Chicago Fire and then, in a game that was all blood-and-thunder, edging RSL for a place in the Final.
“I’m romantic about the Open Cup,” admitted Olsen, whose Dynamo are currently hovering around 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 our Open Cup. They watched their 2018 veteran captain DaMarcus Beasley lift the trophy into the hot air around the downtown Shell Energy Stadium with a rookie-year gleam in his eye – a final moment of celebration to cap a storied career.
Been Here Before
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 claimed 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 as the lone-surviving former champion from the Semifinal field. “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.”
Facing up to Inter Miami – a club transformed from league strugglers to the toast of the soccer universe – in the Final represents, for Olsen, a chance to pull off a career-defining act of underdog bravado. Few are picking the Dynamo to hoist the trophy in Miami in late September, but those same folks might not be closely watching the outstanding midfield play of Amine Bassi, ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla and Hector Herrera.
The Dynamo have been inconsistent in league play, but they’re a team of fighters and scrappers in the mold of their boss who, as much as anyone ever, simply hates to lose.
There’s a certain amount of hang-on-for-dear-life energy in the Open Cup. Ask Olsen about it and he’ll shrug and half-laugh. “You survive long enough and you start to smell an opportunity to put up a Cup and that’s a rare thing you don’t want to miss out on,” added the coach, who, you get the sense, might be a bigger fan than he lets on of the roller-coaster rides the Open Cup provides.
“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.”
Wild Ride & and an Open Door
Having survived the required “wild ride” of the first few rounds, the hard-nosed Quarters and Semis too, the competitive instincts always alive in Olsen take over as he sits on the cusp of a podium place. “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, a knowing echo in his voice as he sits on the precipice of another opportunity. “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.