D.C. United President Kevin Payne addressed a wide range of subjects with me Tuesday afternoon at RFK Stadium:
Volkswagen’s sponsorship deal with D.C. United expires next month, correct?
“Right. There has been nothing definitive, but we’re confident our relationship with Volkswagen will continue. We have had constructive conversations and our relationship has always been good. It always helps when you finish the season on an up-note. Several of their senior marketing people were at the game the other day and were obviously very happy about the scene in the stadium. It helps that they can see what is happening.”
Assuming the deal is renewed, can VW help in the process of securing a new stadium at Buzzard Point?
“If we had a naming-rights deal done up front, that would help clarify a source to help pay for the stadium. Our conversations with them have been conceptual. We had some specific conversations five years ago when we thought we were about to do a deal at Poplar Point. We certainly would be talking to them about what role they would want to play in a new stadium.”
As for the stadium project…..
“There is nothing really new. The District [government] has been engaged and is doing due diligence on their side. We hope to meet again soon to review exactly where we are. Given all the twists and turns this process has taken on, I am certainly as optimistic as I have been in a while.”
United general partner Jason Levien has taken a major role with the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Will he still be actively involved in your stadium efforts? (Levien is planning to move to Washington from New York soon to concentrate on United and be closer to Memphis.)
“Jason and I are having the conversations [with the city]. It’s not like he has to put five hours a day into this; it’s not that kind of process. He and I speak almost every day. We are certainly on the same page going forward. We’re not at a point of the hard-design phase; we’re not out working on the specific financing. The things we are doing now is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait because everybody has to go through their own steps of due diligence.”
Did the team’s success this year help build momentum toward a stadium plan?
“No question. But it’s not like anyone is going to say, ‘Hey, you did well in the playoffs, so let’s get a stadium deal done.’ It’s just that people feel better about the team, they feel better about your place. If we faded out and finished sixth in the East, it’s different. Winning and building excitement helps in every facet.”
There are no lease issues with RFK Stadium this winter, right?
How much will new investment help you broaden the player pool in pursuit of new players?
“It probably make it a little easier to plan. We had a philosophical discussion with Jason and [primary investors] Erick Thohir and Will Chang in New York a couple of weeks ago about the direction we would like to go, which I think they concurred with. Now we have to figure out what that means in terms of players — and when. It won’t necessarily be in the winter. It could be something we roll out next summer because there are more options [in the transfer market] in the summer. I don’t think it makes any sense at this time to be fishing in deep water. We are not going to be out there trying to sign [England star] Frank Lampard.”
“We can’t monetize it. It has to make business sense. He would cost millions a year. We don’t have the things necessary here. It would be one thing if he were younger and we are getting him to bring us into a new stadium to help sell suites and club seats and naming rights. But he is a guy that probably has a year and half left. But also I am not convinced — and I don’t think anyone on the technical side is convinced — is that is what we need. We really like our group. We are looking at possibly other ways of going about this.”
“The league is beginning to put more emphasis on younger, very talented players — potential DPs. Everyone appreciates the value of David Beckham or Robbie Keane to the commercial enterprise of the league, in particular, but we also want to explore whether there are opportunities to invest in appreciating assets — players who are going to increase in value in the time they are here. We have a young group and a young coaching staff. Some of these [potential big-name DPs] are very difficult to manage. They are big personalities. They become somewhat outsized in certain instances. They are accustomed to certain levels of treatment. Right now, at least, we are not sure we want to go down that road. There is nothing written in stone, but given the age of our team, the quality of our young players, and the age of our coaching staff, we think it may make more sense for us to look at players who are more peers of the players we have than are 10 years older.
“There are players out there, particularly to the south of us, who are even better versions of, say, Christian Gomez and Javier Morales. You can look to them and count on them — along with Perry Kitchen, Andy Najar, Chris Pontius, Brandon McDonald and so on — for five, six years and really build a very strong program that can compete for Supporters’ Shields, MLS Cups and hopefully CONCACAF trophies for a long time. We do believe there is a lot to be said for consistency in the group — and we are trying very hard to put ourselves in position to achieve that.”
What does your team need right away?
“We have to look at our midfield options. Is there a way to get a little more creativity and offensive spark while still maintain defensive responsibility? We have two good guys in that position now [Kitchen and Marcelo Saragosa] but they are similar. A goal-scoring forward is a possibility. Everyone was pleased with a lot of what Lionard Pajoy brought to the table at different times. Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi had good moments. If we could combine the three of them into one player, we wouldn’t have to look anywhere.”
You thought you found the answer in Salihi…..
“Yeah. I know Hamdi was gutted he didn’t finish any of those chances Sunday. Getting the chances, though, is a good sign. He really does know how to move and where to be.”
He has a guaranteed contract next season but you could buy him out. Do you want to bring him back?
“That is part of what we have to look at in the offseason. There is an evaluation process going on now involving a number of players.”
Your coach has another year left on his contract, but after the success this season, would you try to extend his deal this winter?
“That is something Jason and I wanted to wait until after the season to discuss. We will have the conversation internally first, but there is no question Ben did a great job. He has grown even faster than we thought he might. In general, he has proven to be the coach I thought he could be. With his place in the D.C. United community, it’s logical to have conversations about his future with the club.”