Nearly two decades after helping to conceive and build D.C. United into Major League Soccer's first powerhouse, Kevin Payne stepped down from the franchise as president and CEO on Wednesday to pursue an opportunity with another MLS team, expected to be Toronto FC, according to sources.
"For me this is a strange day, not necessarily a day I ever maybe thought I would see," Payne said. "I really think it's the right thing for me, and I do honestly think it will be a good opportunity for D.C. United maybe to do things differently and move to a whole new level."
Payne, 59, helped create D.C. United in 1994 and had been with the team since the league's inception in 1996. He played an active role as United won three of the first four league titles and immediately became its strongest brand.
But prior to returning to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time in five years, United had lost its luster with bad player signings, bad luck and decreasing attendance at RFK Stadium. An average of 13,846 fans this season was the worst in team history.
Payne was also involved in a decade-long and still unsuccessful pursuit of a new soccer stadium. His departure comes at a time when a new ownership group, led by Jason Levien and Erick Thohir, has taken a more active role in club operations from top to bottom and is making progress with the District for a new home for the team.
"Kevin's leadership has helped to prepare us for this important and potential-filled inflection point in the club's history," Levien said in a statement.
D.C. United has started a process to find Payne's replacement. Other changes are possible, but general manager Dave Kasper is likely to take a stronger role in building the roster along with coach Ben Olsen.
"Kevin knows soccer, and there's been times where he's said some things that have actually changed the way I look at the game," said Olsen, who has been with D.C. since 1998. "In a lot of ways, he's been paternal to me in my time here. It's sad to see him go."