Kevin Payne was in charge of D.C. United before Washington’s MLS team was even called D.C. United, launching the organization from scratch two years before the opening whistle in 1996 and then overseeing the rise of the league’s first dynasty.
“For me,” he said Tuesday after stepping down as club president, “D.C. United has been like my child.”
Payne raised United through infancy and some terrible teenage years, supervising a record four MLS Cup championship squads and helping wedge the sport back onto the city’s landscape after the North American Soccer League’s demise a decade earlier.
But with a new investment group looking to put its signature on the organization, Payne’s parenting was no longer wanted. He was not fired, several people with knowledge of the situation insisted, but he wasn’t embraced either.
Payne, 59, didn’t want to discuss his plans, but according to multiple people requesting anonymity, he has accepted a senior leadership role with Toronto FC. A formal announcement is expected this week.
“For some time, I have been thinking whether it was time to seek a new challenge and whether D.C. United’s interests could be better served by new thinking,” said Payne, who had an emotional meeting with employees on Tuesday.
Since its arrival in July, United’s investment team met with Payne several times to discuss the direction and philosophy of the organization. Said Jason Levien, United’s general partner and the face of the group, “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.”
For years, United’s investors were largely uninvolved, deferring to Payne to run the club and speak on their behalf. He was, in essence, the team’s unofficial owner, as well as the point man for the still-unfulfilled effort to build a new stadium.
But this new group has taken a more active and visible role. Levien is spearheading talks with the city and developers on a stadium project at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C., blocks from Nationals Park.
News of Payne’s departure came nine days after United was eliminated from the Eastern Conference finals, the club’s first playoff appearance in five years. The team had the third-highest point total during the regular season. Despite the on-field resurgence, investors concluded the business side “needs a lot of work,” a source said. While United was MLS’s model organization for years, the club suffered several setbacks.
Without enhanced revenue streams created by a new facility — RFK Stadium is owned by the city, which has a lease agreement with the team that runs through 2014 — United has been losing money since the inaugural season. Attendance at RFK Stadium this year fell to its lowest average in club history (13,846), the third-worst figure in MLS and a 34 percent decline since 2007.
The stadium outlook has improved since Erick Thohir, the son of an Indonesian billionaire, joined Levien in partnering with San Francisco-based executive Will Chang, who has held a stake in the team since 2007. Levien is planning to move to Washington from New York, a sign of deeper involvement with United.
Payne’s replacement is likely to focus on business operations, granting greater freedom to General Manager Dave Kasper and Coach Ben Olsen to handle roster decisions.
Despite the organization’s history of success, Payne’s management style wasn’t always well received. He was a regular visitor to the locker room, attended practices on occasion and consulted with the technical staff about players.
“He has meant so much to this club, it will be strange not having him around,” said Olsen, who forged a strong bond with Payne during a 15-year playing and coaching career in Washington. “His loyalty to the team and me is something for which I’ll always be indebted.”
Aside from serving as president, Payne also was United’s first general manager. He hired Bruce Arena, a successful coach at the University of Virginia, to guide the nascent squad. United advanced to MLS Cup each of the first four years, raising three trophies, and won the 1998 CONCACAF Champions Cup, an international tournament.
United also won the U.S. Open Cup twice and the Supporters’ Shield (most points in the regular season) four times.
Payne served as United’s president and GM until 2001, when he was named managing director for AEG Sports, which, at the time, operated several MLS teams, including United. Despite the broader role, he kept the same office. Payne returned to full-time duty with United in 2004, the last time the club won the league title.
“This is a strange day, not necessarily a day I ever maybe thought I would see,” said Payne, a longtime Reston resident. “There will always be a part of me with D.C. United. It’s been quite a wonderful ride.”
United notes: Olsen finished third in MLS coach of the year voting behind, in order, San Jose’s Frank Yallop and Kansas City’s Peter Vermes. . . .
Chris Pontius, who returned from a broken leg to lead United in scoring and make MLS’s Best XI list, was second to Seattle’s Eddie Johnson for the comeback award. . . .
Josh Wolff, a veteran forward who also served as an assistant coach, will retire and join the staff full-time, Olsen said. . . .
Olsen will fly to Argentina on Thursday to begin a series of scouting missions.