Ben Olsen joined the Houston Dynamo as manager on November 8, returning to the helm after a two-year coaching hiatus following his departure from D.C. United in October 2020.
He saw the opportunity as a way to start from scratch.
“I’ve spoken publicly about my burnout of, you know, after 10 years at D.C. United I needed to get away and see what else was out there,” he said in an interview with 90min.
“But it’s nice to be back in the MLS, doing what I’m realizing now, is what I love. I wasn’t necessarily sure of that when I was let go of D.C. United, I was pretty convinced I didn’t love coaching at that moment. It’s nice now to start and create relationships with players again.
“Now, we’re starting over together.”
The first couple games of the 2023 MLS campaign saw Olsen and the Dynamo struggle, picking up consecutive defeats to kick off the season. The team fell 2-1 to FC Cincinnati and 3-0 to the New England Revolution before earning the first victory against in-state rival Austin FC three weeks into the league.
Beyond the results and necessary technical work needed to improve, Olsen sought to form a special bond with the players to form a unified team.
“It’s a tough gig to get the wins. But for me, to enjoy that you have to be emotional with each other. That comes naturally to me, it’s never been work to connect and be honest with players. That’s not some secret recipe I have, or a book on how to relate with players. It’s just who I am and how I’ve grown up. But I think it’s an essential part of coaching,” he said to 90min.
“I have to give the right energy. I have to make sure I am authentic and being honest with players and build that foundation of love. Some of my key figures here, in particular Hector [Herrera], I think have some of those same qualities.”
Olsen jumped to emphasize his unlikely relationship with Hector Herrera, who joined the Dynamo in 2022 from Atletico Madrid after more than nine seasons in Europe. Though the midfielder initially struggled to adapt to Major League Soccer, Olsen knew of his potential.
“He’s been easy, very easy to manage. He’s selfless,” he said.
“He’s just a good team player and he’s having success and he’s taken real ownership in this project. Everyone’s like, ‘oh, Hector is having a good season’ well, you know, no s**t. Like he’s a world class player. He’s been in one of the best teams in the world for a long time and he’s played in three World Cups.
“So I’m not sure why everyone’s surprised that this guy is playing at a high level. But, you know, part of it is because he came in last year in a different type of team. It’s always tough to transition. He had a World Cup looming on his head. He’s got some little injuries that, you know, it’s hard to play and also prep for the World Cup. So it was kind of a false look at him.”
Even with a language barrier, the two formed a new form of communication to inspire an alliance.
“He’s loving and it matters to him that this team has success, more than if Hector has individual success and that’s kind of a coaching mentality. I think we connect in that, you know, we’re able to have very strange Spanglish conversations constantly and, again, I think it would be harder if he wasn’t such a good human being at the core,” said Olsen.
“I still try to speak Spanish to him and he knows it’s bad, but it shows that I’m trying. Even if the team is making fun of me behind my back about how bad my accent is or my vocab, it’s just about connecting. I respect him and where he is from. I always try to, always think about the player as a person first, where they’re coming from, and what their experiences are. There’s subtle cultural differences all over the world, the more you do this job, the more you get to understand the importance of culture.”
In a separate interview, Herrera also highlighted the importance of the pair’s unique dialect.
“The way we understand each other is strange because he understands Spanish but speaks very little of it, and I understand a bit of English but speak nothing but we communicate rather well. Often through a certain look or gestures we know what the other one means or wants to transmit,” said Herrera to 90min.
“For me, it’s the confidence he’s deposited in me. It’s been a crucial aspect of this relationship.”
The midfielder emphasized beyond his individual relationship with the coach, Olsen’s efforts created a team united.
“The most noticeable aspect of the Dynamo this year under Olsen is the unity between the team. Maybe you’ve seen some goal celebrations, but we come together as a team. We have great chemistry throughout the squad, which makes for the special goal moments.
“Like the bunny one, it came about because we were all doing it in the locker room before the game started. Amine and I started jumping like that, and someone mentioned if we scored we would all have to do it. But all of us near the bench, so that everyone could take part in the goal celebration. Those are the small things that inspire success, the chemistry and unity in a team.
“When everyone’s happy, success naturally comes on the field.”
And the results fortify Herrera’s statement.
The Dynamo lifted the US Open Cup on September 27, triumphing 2-1 over Inter Miami at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida to hand Olsen his first title at the helm. Goals from Griffin Dorsey and Amine Bassi sealed the victory to usher in a new, championship-winning era for the Houston team.
And in MLS, the Dynamo currently sit in fourth on the Western Conference table, a significant jump from last year’s 13th place finish. The team stands inches away from qualifying to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and four victories from beating the Dynamo’s overall points record in the league.
Individually, Herrera has recorded a team-leading 14 assists, ranking him in second place league-wide for most goal contributions, and four goals. The stats prove a significant change from 2022, after Herrera recorded just one assist in 10 regular-season games.
Olsen’s impact can be seen on and off the field, a new chapter dawns on the Dynamo.
“For me, it has always been the relationships. Giving trust to players and them trusting what we’re doing. Watching them have success with that, it gives me chills,” said Olsen with a smile.
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