Ben Olsen leaves a legacy

[MLS] The stirring yet sad playing saga of Ben Olsen is officially over. A fierce, combative midfielder finally gave in to pain and frustration induced by ankle injuries dating back nearly a decade, and said goodbye Tuesday on "Ben Olsen Day" at RFK Stadium, where his drive and desire personified a man who loved his club and vice versa.

"There have been many, many great players over the years at D.C. United, players that we remember and honor in many ways," said team president and CEO Kevin Payne at the retirement ceremony. "But I don't know if any of them has made any greater impact on the culture of this club and on the hearts of our fans than Ben Olsen. He has left a legacy at this team and in this city that will live for a long time after his playing days."

Those days lasted into the 2009 season only through hard, intense work to recover from repair of degenerative damage that required four separate surgeries in 2008 alone, and nine operations during his professional career.

"I was very happy -- I didn't think it was going to happen," said Olsen of getting back on the field in 2009 after playing just 15 minutes in 2008. "But to get back, to get through this year, I got through it, let's say, through modern medicine. It was definitely with the help of anti-inflammatories and shots and things that, I don't know how long you want to keep doing.

"As the season ended, I wanted to cleanse myself from a lot of that stuff, and then the reality hit. The true ankle, the ankle I'm going to deal with for the rest of my life, showed itself and it spooked me a little bit."

He punches out with 221 regular-season games and 22 playoff matches during which he scored 31 goals, registered 51 assists, and won two league titles (1999 and 2004). He played on eight trophy-winning teams, If ever a player carried his lunch-bucket persona with pride and purpose, that was Ben Olsen.

Last September, he spoke of lasting perhaps one more year, how much the league has changed, and how grateful he felt to wear the D.C. United badge so often and for so long, since coming to MLS out of Virginia in 1998 and winning Rookie of the Year honors. " I feel good, I feel blessed, and I don't mean all the time to be talking about being old," said Olsen, who turned 32 in May. "I think I have a year or two left in me if the ankle cooperates. I'm still enjoying it, and probably enjoying it more than I ever have.

"I'm still high-maintenance. I'm still as moody as ever, but it's more for lack of sleep than anything." Olsen and his wife, Megan, are the parents of a daughter, Ruby, who was born a little more than a year ago. He credits them with surviving the anxiety and uncertainty about his health and his career as long as he did.

"The first time I went through it, the first of the four surgeries in 2002 or 2003, I don't even know, it's all a blur, I met my wife," he says. "So after the first surgery, I fell in love, so that helped me through that. The second time [in 2008], we had a child on the way, so that was a very big part of me not completely losing my mind."

The RFK faithful occasionally lost their minds thanks to Olsen, whose labored efforts the past few seasons drew respect if not always praise. He scored just one goal in 2009 but it was incredible, dramatic, gutsy: a header from a seemingly impossible angle on a free kick flighted past the far post and nearly out of play while Olsen outmuscled Wells Thompson on the goal line to nod the ball into the net for a stoppage-time equalizer.

Usually, it was his rugged, sometimes ruthless play that neutralized the opposition and energized his teammates and fans, yet either out wide or in the middle, Olsen could use the ball once he'd won it, nicking a quick, smart pass to the bevy of playmakers and attackers United has employed in the past decade. In that time, he's seen dramatic changes.

"The style has changed in 10 years," says Olsen. "I hesitate to say we're that much better as a soccer league. There were some very good teams early, and there were some very bad teams, too. It's certainly more level from team to team, teams have gotten better. There were a couple of teams back in the day that obviously were very good and very successful.

"Now it's younger, it's more athletic, it's a faster league. The pace of the players has changed. Speed is important now in this league, but sometimes you don't have the quality of play with that speed, with some of the Latin influence we had in the league."

As much as he will miss the club, the locker-room banter, and the battles, he won't miss those agonizing hours before kickoff. As usual, he lays into himself for being a niggling, nervous pain in the neck. "The only thing worse than game day is locker-room game day, before the game," he says. "I just annoy everybody in the locker room. I just talk to them until they tell me to shut up, so guys are starting to come in late.

"They're not fun. I never liked game day. I always feel like I'm wasting my life away because you feel trapped. You can't do too much. The anxiety is there, the excitement. When I'm done I will not miss game days, that's for sure."


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