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John Haydon: Olsenís pro career off to quick start.

(Tuesday, March 31, 1998) -- Ben Olsen never expected his pro career to take off so fast. After starting two straight matches for Major League Soccer two-time champion (Washington) D.C. United, the former Virginia standout has had every right to look a little starry-eyed.

After D.C. United dispatched the Kansas City Wizards 3-2 on March 21, Olsen, playing right midfield,, had proven to himself and many in the stands that leaving college with one year of eligibility remaining was the right career move.

The 5-foot-8, 135-pounder wearing No. 14 looked at home trading passes with Marco Etcheverry and A.J. Wood on the right flank. Olsen, 20, nearly scored in the eighth minute when his shot hit the post (he was called for a foul on the play).

"I was a little nervous at first, but once you get out there it's just soccer," said Olsen, who joined United as a Project 40 player in December.

Project 40 is a program set up by MLS to recruit and develop college talent. Players in the program aren't expected to break into their team's starting lineup right away, but Olsen appears to be an exception.

His break came when starting midfielder Tony Sanneh pulled a muscle in the first half of United's season opener at Miami on March 15. Coach Bruce Arena replaced the injured Sanneh with Olsen, who made his pro debut.

"Tony got hurt, but there's a flip side to that," Olsen said. "It was a great time to get thrown into the game. It was good that I got my feet wet early."

Olsen wasnít nearly as impressive in D.C.ís 2-1 shootout victory over the New England evolution Sunday, but even when Sanneh has recovered from his right hamstring strain, Arena may find it difficult to release Olsen to the MLS Pro-40 team that will play two A-League matches every weekend. Arena may prefer to keep Olsen on his bench.

Said Olsen: "When Tony comes back, I'll have a little more confidence coming off the bench."

In his brief professional career, Olsen has shown imagination, speed and a good work ethic. Some veteran players are impressed.

"He's not shy on the field at all," United midfielder John Harkes said. "When he gets tired, he still makes an effort. That shows he has a big heart. When you've got the vision like he has and the skill and you make the effort, you have the ingredients for a (bright) future."

Last year the Middletown, Pa., product was touted as the best player in college ranks at Virginia. He led the nation in scoring with 54 points, including 19 goals. With the Cavaliers, Olsen attacked more. With United he is likely to play wide in the midfield.

"In college, I played forward, but my size doesn't help me too much in this league," Olsen said. "Bruce wants to utilize me as a runner to get behind the defense and create plays."

As a Project 40 player, Olsen earns a base salary of $24,000, plus $37,500 to complete his education. He also has a shoe deal with MLS sponsor Nike.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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