By THOMAS FLOYD
Ben Olsen leaned back, squinted and put his mental clock in reverse. Toward the last time he tasted MLS Cup glory, to be precise. It’s been nearly a decade, but he hasn’t forgotten what defined that D.C. United locker room.
“A lot of personality,” he recalled. “And a lot of natural leaders.”
Olsen was the midfield general. Respect innately came through heart and grit. Mike Petke filled the role of a good soldier. Smart. Affable. Team-first. And Ryan Nelsen captained the unit, boasting tactical awareness that belied his age.
“We had different types of personalities,” Nelsen said. But unified, they put a fourth star above the United crest. As Petke noted, “Not many teams, from the mental makeup, are able to come together — and we did.”
While that high point in 2004 marked the end of the trio’s two-year run as teammates, their intertwined narratives didn’t break off there. Nine years later, they have enjoyed a reunion of sorts, convening in the Eastern Conference as three of the four youngest head coaches in MLS.
During their playing days, could they have imagined meeting again under such circumstances?
“With Nellie, you always knew that was something he’d end up in,” Olsen said, before adding with a smirk, “Mike and I? Not so much.”
THE CULT ICON
In taking the helm of the only MLS club he’s known, Olsen, 35, stands in contrast to his former teammates. Petke, 37, was more of a journeyman, eventually making the player-to-coach transition with his hometown New York Red Bulls. And the 35-year-old Nelsen’s playing exploits spanned the globe, shuttling him between England for club and New Zealand for country before Toronto FC came calling.
Although self-deprecating wit is ingrained in Olsen, he’s not the only one surprised by his career’s turn to the coaching ranks.
“I would have never known Ben was going to coach,” Petke said with a laugh. “I thought Ben would either be on a beach in the Caribbean or in the middle of Paris in some bohemian coffee shop painting whatever.”
As the United faithful have been grateful to see, Olsen resisted those more leisurely temptations. A fan-favorite known for his workmanlike attitude and shrewdness on the ball, Olsen played until his ankles told him he couldn’t, then slid into an assistant coaching role for the 2010 season.
Once Curt Onalfo faltered, Olsen was tabbed as the interim coach that August and handed the full-time position three months later. In just two years, the central Pennsylvania native managed to steer United from the bottom of the MLS barrel to the league’s third-best record, securing a spot in the conference final last fall.
“Everything he does, he does wholeheartedly,” Nelsen said. “He’s the kind of guy that no matter what he does, he’ll be successful. He puts everything into it, and people respect that.”
That mindset has served Olsen well, earning him a contract extension through 2014. Lately, he’s thrived by instilling a prosaic philosophy keyed on high pressure, defensive discipline and opportunistic attacking flourishes — characteristics that should ring a bell for anyone who watched the onetime U.S. World Cup midfielder play.
“If you’re not doing something right, he’ll definitely let you know,” said Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who played with United from 2002 to 2006. “When he was out there, there was so much courage and passion for the sport. You can see the change in attitude D.C. has now since he’s taken over. It’s, ‘Do it my way or see your way out.’”
THE BORN LEADER
Float Nelsen’s name to his ex-teammates and the response is stunning in its uniformity. He seized the reins vocally and led by example. Played with intelligence. Was a craftsman of nuance. The high praise goes on.
“He was as good as I’ve ever played with,” Olsen said. “He understood and watched the game like a coach, even at that age. It was impressive to watch.”
Added Petke: “He made the game so much easier for myself and all of the players around him, with the way he read the game, the positioning he took and way that he directed all of us. … Looking back on it, it really is no shock that he’s gone into coaching.”
Yes, before he would skipper his country at a World Cup or establish himself in the English Premier League, Nelsen wore the armband for United.
In coach Peter Nowak’s 3-5-2 formation, having the aerially dominant Nelsen to anchor that back line was critical to United’s success. And the fact that Nelsen, at age 26, captained a club that also included MLS legend Jaime Moreno and U.S. national team stalwart Earnie Stewart was a tribute to his influence.
“When he spoke, people listened,” Rimando said. “Veterans like Earnie, Jaime, [Marco] Etcheverry — they listened to him. Even though he was a youngster coming up, he had a presence about him that really woke everybody up.”
Jumping straight from the pitch for Queens Park Rangers to the MLS sidelines a month and a half ago, Nelsen now finds himself using that authority to direct the overhaul of a Toronto franchise that has never made the playoffs in its six-year existence, finishing with the league’s worst mark last season.
Olsen, who was hired by now-Toronto president Kevin Payne to rebuild United under similar circumstances, was quick to point out it’s a “couple-year project.” Ever the practical mind, Nelsen even acknowledged that he faces the tallest task among the trio.
“I definitely knew all along he would be a coach after his career, or at least stay involved in football,” said Stewart, now the general manager of Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. “He’s a guy that’s very structured in everything, so I’m pretty sure he’s doing a fantastic job over there. He looks a little bit further than the results of today and tomorrow, and that obviously for a coach is a good aspect to have.”
THE COMPANY MAN
Midway through United’s 2004 campaign, Nowak summoned Petke to his RFK Stadium office. The first-year coach had benched his player, an action for which he offered a straightforward explanation.
“You’re not playing very good right now,” Petke remembered hearing. “You have to go home and look yourself in the mirror, and then come back tomorrow and tell me I’m wrong.”
That didn’t sit well with Petke. Not initially, at least. But after exiting the meeting and cursing Nowak under his breath, he did as he was told. When he returned to training the next day, he was reinvigorated. Not long after, the starting slot again was his.
“I find myself being very demanding at times, very emotional, very passionate, and that was Peter,” Petke said through his blue-collar Long Island accent. “I don’t make excuses and I’m very big on accountability from my players.”
That’s fitting from a sturdy defender who in ’04 played left back rather than his natural spot in the middle. Petke was a more unassuming piece of United’s locker room puzzle. With other veterans in the mix, he dutifully played his part. Solid if unspectacular.
“He always had a really nice leadership about him,” Nelsen said. “Everybody felt comfortable talking to him, and he read the game very well. He probably got underrated as a player, I would say, as well.”
Unlike Olsen and Nelsen, Petke had time to hone his coaching style before being thrown into the fire, spending the past two seasons as Hans Backe’s understudy. And rather than a rebuilding effort, he inherited a talent-laden roster highlighted by the likes of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.
With such luxuries, however, comes heightened responsibility — particularly when it comes to the snake-bitten Red Bulls organization. As a local who spent seven seasons playing for New York, he comprehends the weight of the club’s trophy-less history better than most.
“He’s got the feel and rhythm for what that market needs,” said Philadelphia Union captain Brian Carroll, a United midfielder from 2003 to 2007. “Mike is not a shy individual. He’s just a strong locker room positive personality that will be able to bring all the personalities together that encompass the New York franchise and bring it under one idea.”
Coaches are shaped by a compilation of influences. It’s a job, after all, that can require myriad roles, including that of a leader and exemplar. Of a mentor and motivator. A counselor. Even a father figure.
So logically, one looks all over for inspiration. For Olsen, Nelsen and Petke, that includes turning to one another, even if just subconsciously.
“We’re all influenced throughout our careers, not only by coaches but by players,” Olsen explained. “I’m sure they’ve rubbed off on me, and hopefully I’ve rubbed off on them in a good way.”
Said Nelsen: “I’ve tried to learn from everybody. You take a little bit and kind of get it into your DNA.”
While United and the Red Bulls were training in Florida in January, Petke embraced that train of thought by sitting down with Olsen to pick his brain. The United coach’s tongue-in-cheek advice, naturally, was to mull the life-consuming opportunity and sprint in the other direction.
On Saturday, Petke will make his home coaching debut at Red Bull Arena with an Atlantic Cup tilt against Olsen’s D.C. side. If all goes well for the coaches, it will be the first of many clashes featuring the three friendly — or perhaps not-so-friendly — foes.
“I had a joke with Ben: ‘Even though we’re friends, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to curse at you on the sideline,’” Petke said.
How did Olsen respond?
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”