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Major League Soccer

After fourth surgery on ankle, Olsen hopes United return is near.

Ben Olsen
After a fourth surgery, D.C. United midfielder Ben Olsen reports his right ankle is almost pain-free and he hopes to return to Major League Soccer action in August.
- Photo by Tony Quinn -
By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Friday, July 12, 2002) -- Two years ago, Ben Olsen was the United States' most promising young soccer player.

A star for D.C. United in its 1998 Major League Soccer championship season, Olsen became a contender for a starting spot in the U.S. national team's midfield. In his 17 appearances with the U.S. men in 1999 and 2000 -- nine starts -- the Americans complied a 10-1-6 record.

By March of 2001, Olsen was playing on loan in England's First Division for Nottingham Forest, a club that was preparing to offer a reported $2 million transfer fee to MLS to obtain the former University of Virginia standout.

Then came Forest's March 7, 2001, match against Barnsley. Just before halftime, Olsen grabbed his right ankle, fell to the ground, and rolled off the field in obvious pain. X-rays revealed a broken bone and he returned to the U.S. where he had two pins inserted to stabilize the area.

Olsen, 25, has not played in a game since.

He has worked hard on rehabilitation, but every time he thought he was close to returning to action, complications arose. After surgery in January, he hoped to play most or all of the 2002 season. When the pain returned, Olsen underwent another procedure -- the fourth operation on his right ankle -- on June 11. Dr. William Hazel removed the two screws in the ankle, released adhesions that were binding the posterior tibial tendon to its sheath and cleaned fibrous adhesions in the joint.

At the time, United officials said that they hoped Olsen might be able to return for the MLS playoffs. Now, Olsen hopes he can return to the lineup within the month.

Hudson calls Olsen only "about 40 percent match fit," but says he is making progress more rapidly than anyone could have imagined.

"I think we got to the root cause of all the problems this time," Olsen said. The right ankle "feels really good. In fact this is the best it has felt in a long time. It's a little sore, but the pain I was feeling is gone. I think we got it this time."

While fans and observers gushed about the speed and athleticism of young Americans Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley during the recent World Cup, without that his injury problems, the grit and determination of Ben Olsen might have been a major topic of conversation. Instead, Olsen was camped in front of his television with his favorite pillow, loudly expressing his support for the U.S. men. "I'm in front of the TV, my foot propped up, rooting the boys on," he said during the tournament.

While Olsen certainly would have liked to have played in the Cup, he felt worse for midfielder Chris Armas, who tore an anterior cruciate ligament in May, than he did himself. "I've known for a long time I wasn't going to the Cup," Olsen said. "It must have been really hard for someone like Chris Armas to lose his World Cup two weeks before."

Olsen has lost more than two full MLS seasons to ankle problems that started June 17, 2000, when the 5-foot-8, 150-pounder from Harrisburg, Pa., clashed with Chicago Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton who is listed at 6-3, 210. Olsen was out seven weeks, limited to 13 MLS games that season.

Olsen did make the U.S. Olympic team in 2000, starting five of the six U.S. matches in Sydney, Australia, but ankle problems were a factor in his missing one game and coming out of two others.

The real crisis came after the Olympics while on loan to Forest for the MLS off-season. He instantly became a crowd favorite and Forest manager David Platt wanted to obtain him on a permanent basis, but Olsen had injury problems with both ankles and his hamstring before breaking his right ankle.

After his initial surgery, Olsen tried to get back before the end of the 2001 MLS season, but experienced extreme pain. While a second operation was performed on his right ankle, surgery was also done on the left ankle to clean up residual problems.

"The poor lad's been through so much," United coach Ray Hudson said, shaking his head. "I think now he's finally coming back. You saw him out there today. He's really better than he has been since I've been here and I really think you'll see the Ben Olsen of old before too much longer."

In today's scrimmage, Olsen played on the left side of midfield, against United's first defense. He ran freely, crossed the ball well and was not afraid of physical contact. He was showed no fear of taking on defenders, at one point beating national-team defender Eddie Pope to get off a hard shot.

"My problem now is to get the rest of my body in shape," Olsen says. "After the last two days (of training at full speed) I kind of ache everywhere, my quads, my hamstring. It might be a week or two weeks or three. I don't want to push it. After all this time, I want to be ready."

Officially, Olsen is on United's active list and Hudson said he has considered putting the former All-Star in uniform and on the bench soon, even before he's able to enter a match.

"He's such a part of this team," Hudson said. "He's worked very hard and deserves to have his shirt on and to be on the bench with us. But I'm not going to push him in any way. I'm afraid (United trainer) Rick (Guter) would kill me, so I'll wait till he's actually ready to go."

Managing editor Gary Davidson contributed to this report.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com..

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