Kevin Payne, who helped conceive and build D.C. United into Major League Soccer’s first powerhouse club, is stepping down from the franchise to pursue an opportunity with another MLS team.
““They say the only constant in life is change,” Payne said in a statement. “For me, D.C. United has been like my child. We brought the team into the D.C. and national sports world 17 years ago and every day since – good and bad – has been a labor of love.”
Payne will join Toronto FC, according to multiple other sources and reports.
Payne, 59, has been with D.C. United since before the league’s inception in 1996, the architect of a team that won three of the first four league titles, immediately became its strongest brand and set the standard for how clubs should be run in MLS’ early stages.
But prior to returning to the playoffs in 2012 for the first time in five years, United had lost some of its luster with bad player signings, bad luck and decreasing attendance at RFK Stadium – the average of 13,846 this season was the worst in team history.
Payne was also involved in a decade-long but as of yet still unsuccessful pursuit of a new soccer stadium. His departure comes at a time when a new and deep-pocketed 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 in consummating a stadium deal with the District.
“Kevin’s lengthy list of accomplishments speaks to his strong acumen as a leader,” Levien said in the club’s announcement. “His dedication to the organization deserves deep admiration and appreciation. As D.C. United begins a new chapter, Kevin’s leadership has helped to prepare us for this important and potential-filled inflection point in the club’s history.”
D.C. United has already started a process to find Payne’s replacement. Other changes could be possible, but United is in a stronger position on the soccer side than it has been in years. General manager Dave Kasper, after essentially working in conjunction with Payne, is likely to take a stronger role in building the roster. Coach Ben Olsen is under contract but could negotiate an extension that would keep him in Washington long-term. The United coaching staff is expected to embark on a scouting trip to South America at the end of the week, according to a source with knowledge of the club operations.
Payne’s presence in the front office and in the locker room has been unmistakable since he helped create the team’s ownership group in 1994. He was the team’s first president and general manager until 2001, when he was named managing director for AEG Sports. Payne came back to D.C. United full-time in 2004, the year of the team’s most recent MLS Cup. He had quadruple bypass heart surgery in 2008.
Payne’s style has always been hands-on throughout the organization – even if it wasn’t universally lauded – from regular attendance at team practices to often commenting in the locker room after games to overseeing the team’s operations and charitable efforts. He was the club’s biggest cheerleader but it blurred the line between his role in operations and the team itself.
Without Payne, D.C. United could see a leadership void, but it could also allow for some personnel to take on greater responsibility than before and a breath of fresh air for a franchise already confident that it is once again headed in the right direction.
“Very few people in American soccer have put their stamp on a club as Kevin has with D.C. United,” Olsen said in the release. “His loyalty to the team and me is something for which I’ll always be indebted.”