PHILADELPHIA – Diplomacy never came naturally to Ben Olsen during his combative and committed playing days.
Although he may not have employed the tactic much as a player, Olsen has used it frequently to work through the peculiar circumstances foisted upon him after his belated, Peter Nowak-prompted appointment as the MLS All-Star coach for Wednesday's friendly against Chelsea.
Olsen turned into one of the most popular people in the league over the past few weeks as he waded through a selection process he compared to a MLS version of fantasy football. Several people chipped in their thoughts about who should make the team, who should play and who should spend most of their All-Star Game experience on the bench.
“After talking to every coach and every agent, that almost becomes the toughest part of this deal, trying to make everybody happy,” Olsen said with a laugh during a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
No perfect balance exists in this awkwardly placed exhibition match located in the middle of two full weekends of league play. The travel demands exacted a toll on all parties and inspired doubts about how much certain All-Stars could feature. A smattering of players traveled across the continent – a five-man delegation made its way from Vancouver on Monday after the Whitecaps' 2-1 victory over San Jose on Sunday night – to link up with the squad for two cursory training sessions, while a couple of participants must start to ponder Vancouver's visit to Real Salt Lake on Friday night.
Mix all of the conflicts and considerations together and a serious problem emerges: parceling out playing time in a equitable manner to keep all parties happy and healthy.
Olsen took remedial steps to ease the burden when he called Philadelphia midfielder Michael Farfan into the squad on Tuesday and consented to Chelsea's clamor for 10 substitutions instead of seven. Further measures loom as kickoff approaches and the match progresses. RSL midfielder Kyle Beckerman and Vancouver defender Jay DeMerit likely won't play more than a half (if even that much) with a game looming on Friday, while other, non-D.C. United sides with multiple players involved – including Los Angeles (though Landon Donovan is banned for Saturday's visit to FC Dallas and could play all 90 minutes), Philadelphia, San Jose, Seattle and Sporting Kansas City – will likely see the load doled out judiciously between their players.
“I think we found a pretty good balance,” Olsen said on his plans. “It's worked out where we can get everybody a significant amount of playing time.”
The exact allocation of time for each player remains up for discussion. While Olsen can use Dwayne De Rosario and Chris Pontius as he pleases and blame only himself in the final calculus, he must monitor the minutes of his entire squad carefully in order to return these crucial players back to their club sides in proper working order. Few awful scenarios exist in the context of an All-Star Game, but the prospect of losing one of the league's most talented players to injury because he logged too much time on the field in a friendly surely ranks among them.
“I want to be respectful to the game at hand, but also respectful to the coaches and the players,” Olsen said. “I don't want to put these players in jeopardy of being injured by being overtaxed. It's been a new thing for me and it's been great in that experience.”
No other project in Olsen's nascent career quite compares to the task he currently faces. For one night, Olsen counts the entire league – coaches, players and staffers alike – as his backers and among his squad. No wonder why he eschewed the coaching equivalent of those robust tackles he used to unleash on unsuspecting opponents in favor of a more delicate approach designed to ensure all parties emerge from the experience relatively unscathed and with another All-Star Game victory in the bag.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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