When D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals, we will see two contrasting teams and two contrasting managers. Ben Olsen has been at the helm of United since August 2010 and will be making his MLS Cup Playoffs debut as a head coach. His counterpart, Hans Backe, will be coaching in his fourth playoff match-up in MLS. He may not have the wealth of playoff experience that Bruce Arena or Sigi Schmid have, but it is safe to safe he's moved beyond the playoff novice phase.
The story lines in this series have been dominated by the venue reversal brought about because of the impact of Hurricane Sandy in the New York metropolitan area, and it could very well play a part in the ultimate outcome of the series. But Olsen and Backe have to factor into that picture as well.
Olsen has weathered some major bumps since taking over the helm of D.C., and few teams reached the highs and lows of his team in 2012. The playoffs were a major target this year, especially considering the five-year drought, which seems inconceivable for a club that has been as successful as United. That Olsen helped bring his team back to the MLS Cup mix is a real accomplishment, and all the more impressive considering the fact that Dwayne De Rosario missed the stretch run of the regular season with a knee injury.
With a roster of a couple of stars, some current and former Designated Players, and a lot of role players and discarded parts, Olsen has to be credited with getting his team to roll with the punches and persist in the face of injuries, scheduling quirks, and disappointing results. His energy on the sidelines and youthfulness seems to have rubbed off on his players. Although experience seems to count a great deal in playoff performance, Olsen has shown his team can perform for the occasion. But with a new test, can he continue his team's positive run?
Countering that is Backe and the Red Bulls. New York is in a very strange position, with more talent than they have had previously in Backe's time as manager, and on paper the Red Bulls look like a heavy favorite in this series. But Backe said weeks ago that this is his final season in charge of the Red Bulls, and lame duck coaches usually only inspire their players when they already have a successful track record.
Backe doesn't have that sterling history, and it is unclear if his team is really willing to "win it for Hans." He seems to stay aloof on the sideline during the match, and his low-energy style seems to be cool and collected in the best of times and woefully unprepared in the worst of times for his squad. Add to that the track record that he does have in MLS, which ranges from avoiding most young American players like the plague, refusing to use his allotted substitutions on a regular basis, and failing to account for a major international tournament during the season, and it is far from certain if Backe's experience really counts for much.
Still, Backe has appeared to learn from some of his past mistakes this year, as he's incorporated youngsters like Ryan Meara and Connor Lade into the starting lineup, been more liberal with his substitutions, and not had to worry about the pesky Gold Cup this season.
Frankly, both teams have a real potential to rise to the occasion and roll over the opponent, as well as an equal potential to collapse into a heap and lose badly. Given Olsen's inexperience and the relative lack of star power on his roster, and Backe's penchant for being the MLS Wild Card, the coaches on opposite ends of the spectrum somehow make out to be a toss-up.
In the end, Olsen has a chance to become a fixture in the MLS coaching pantheon, regardless of this year's outcome, while Backe's got one and only shot this year for MLS immortality, if he leads the Red Bulls to the title. Still, there aren't two coaches in the 2012 MLS playoffs as dissimilar as Olsen and Backe.