||ESPNsoccernet: World Cup
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
CARY, N.C. -- When the United States national team qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals last September, Ben Olsen, like every other American soccer fan, enjoyed the moment. And like most other American soccer fans, Olsen expected his tournament participation to extend no further than catching all the games on television.
Even after Bruce Arena, his old coach at the University of Virginia and D.C. United, called him into the January camp, Olsen could be forgiven for thinking he was just filling out the numbers. He had not played in a single qualifier for Germany 2006, and it was obvious that only one or two midfield spots in the 23-man World Cup roster remained up for grabs at that time.
"If you'd asked me four months ago whether or not I was going to be a part of this thing, I would have told you, 'No way!' And that's not me being humble; it's just that was the case," said the 29-year-old D.C. United midfielder.
But while those in front of him, like Kansas City's Kerry Zavagnin and New England's Pat Noonan and Steve Ralston, succumbed to a combination of poor form and injuries, Olsen strung together one strong performance after another for his club while steadily impressing in every appearance with the national team.
In the end, Olsen's sharp form and his ability to play almost anywhere in the midfield propelled him onto the final U.S. roster. No doubt his experience, easy-going personality and history of match-winning performances under Arena all contributed toward his selection, as well.
"He's a good player," Arena said. "He's versatile. He can play in a bunch of roles in the midfield. [He's] an experienced guy, and he fits in well with the team. His role is whatever it needs to be. That's a nice luxury to have in your team."
For Olsen, the chance to play in Germany represents -- all at once -- a fulfillment of expectations and the completion of a Lazarus-like international comeback. Once regarded as perhaps the most promising young talent in the American youth system, Olsen blazed through college and his first few years of Major League Soccer as an attacking midfielder, forward and right winger, impressing all who watched him with his quickness, creativity and ability to beat defenders off the dribble.
When Olsen earned MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 1998 and the MLS Cup MVP award in 1999, it seemed just a matter of time before he seized the U.S. right-midfield position and graced the world's greatest sporting stage.
But toward the end of a highly-successful loan deal at English club Nottingham Forest in 2001, Olsen badly fractured his right ankle. He spent the next year undergoing four separate ankle operations and wondering whether he would ever play again, let alone at a high level.
Ultimately, Olsen fought back to full fitness, but by then fans no longer used adjectives like "speedy" to describe him. They were replaced by words like "hard-working", "gritty" and "determined" as Olsen reinvented himself into more of a deep-lying central midfielder and team leader at United.
Written off by many as an international-caliber player, Olsen burst back into the World Cup picture in January despite having to leave camp twice with injuries. But he worked extremely hard on fitness over the winter, and that helped him leave the nagging injuries behind.
Meanwhile, his highlight-reel goal from distance against Guatemala earlier this year served notice of his capabilities, as did the fact that he had directed first-place United on a month-long unbeaten run to start the season.
"[Making this roster] is special because a lot of people wrote me off a couple of years back. It isn't that I have any grudge against them. They were just going with the odds. The odds were that I wasn't going to be the player that I used to be," Olsen said.
What helped Olsen beat the odds, in fact, was that he learned to be more intelligent with his runs and passing while retaining his trademark ability to maintain possession and score goals from midfield.
"I've had to turn into more of a soccer player than an athlete, and I've enjoyed the change," he said.
It's his tenacity and personality, however, that stand out to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, Olsen's soccer role model growing up in Pennsylvania.
"He's a great guy for the team," Reyna said. "I think that's another part of what Bruce looks at -- everyone on the team is working together, everyone has got to be pulled together -- and he's a great guy to have around. He's just a good team player, he keeps things loose, and that's all part of it. You need personalities like Ben around the team."
It helps also that Olsen recognizes his position within the U.S. fold and has embraced it without question.
"My role is obviously a reserve role, and almost a fill-in role," he said. "If people get injured, cards come up, hopefully I can fill in a couple of different spots."
At the same time, he said, he would relish the opportunity to contribute on the pitch.
Olsen need only look at his teammate Pablo Mastroeni for inspiration on that score. Like Olsen, Mastroeni did not play in a single qualifier for Korea/Japan 2002 and arrived as one of the last players to make the roster yet played a major role on the field during the Americans' quarterfinal run.
Unlike Mastroeni in 2002, Olsen already has a wealth of international experience -- notching over 30 senior caps to go with his experience in the 2000 Olympics.
"The only thing I can really compare this to was the Olympics," Olsen said. "That was a similar format -- the way you have to deal with points and winning games. I could draw from those experiences, but [the World Cup] is going to be nothing like that. The pace and size and everything is going to be quicker; the fans -- it's a bigger stage."
When he finally arrives on that stage, Olsen will be the only representative from MLS Eastern Division leaders D.C. United. Olsen said his club teammates have let him know that they will be watching, and they expect big things out of him when he gets back.
"Most of them basically want dinner, a free dinner," Olsen said. "They know how much the bonus money is for the roster, so they think I owe the team some kind of dinner when I get back. But that's a small price to pay. They've been great, they've been so supportive, and I think they'll be cheering for me."
Mike Hanzel is a freelance writer who covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on email@example.com