Erick Thohir came into D.C. United‘s life at the right time. And now the MLS club’s primary investor is leaving at the proper moment.
With the Indonesian businessman selling his majority share, partner Jason Levien is assembling a new ownership group that is likely to include Los Angeles billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. The Federal Trade Commission posted a pending transaction between Thohir and Soon-Shiong last Friday, though sources said the deal will probably end up involving several individuals.
While such disruptions in sports often leave fans anxious about the future, this appears to be a good move for United. Thohir’s wealth, to a large extent, is getting a new soccer stadium built at Buzzard Point, but after pouring tens of millions into the project in Southwest D.C., he has been reluctant to invest in the roster.
Years of prudent spending in MLS has given way to escalating payrolls — and the rise of a new device called “targeted allocation money,” which allows teams to sign more expensive players. While many of the 23 clubs (and counting, as expansion continues) have opened the vault for talent that was once out of the league’s league, United has continued cobbling together rosters through trades and middling imports.
When team salaries go public next month, D.C. will again be near the bottom of the list. The Los Angeles Galaxy’s acquisition of superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the most spectacular signing of the new season, but outside the limelight, many other teams have bulked up.
With an ownership group more willing to spend, United would be able to begin making gains on the heavy hitters: Atlanta, Seattle, Toronto, New York City FC and the Galaxy. D.C. has gotten by in a balanced league — in 2014, one year after the fewest victories in club history, United had MLS’s third-best record. But with MLS loosening roster restrictions, a widening gap has begun to take shape.
Thohir, who has a 78 percent stake in the team, has been reluctant to keep pace. Living afar and lacking an emotional attachment to the organization, he had reached his limits — even with the promise of stadium profits.
He rarely visits Washington, leaving active duties to Levien, and has been consumed with the Asian Games in Indonesia, for which he is the president of the organizing committee. He is also an investor in Inter Milan, though his stake in the Italian club has fallen the past two years.
Thohir arrived in the summer of 2012 with the financial wherewithal sought by the lone investor at the time, Will Chang. Aside from running a money-losing team in a league with escalating costs, Chang needed a partner with a portfolio to pay for the new stadium. Without Thohir, United might have been stuck at RFK Stadium until the turn of the next century — or until a raccoon tripped the wrong switch and the whole place crumbled.
For this, United supporters should be grateful to Thohir. When the burden of United became too much for Chang, Thohir and Co. bought him out in the fall of 2016.
Levien had also arrived in 2012. While Thohir was the big-money guy, the former political strategist and NBA agent-executive-investor became the face of the ownership group, tasked with navigating the political jungle in the long-sought efforts to build a stadium. At the introductory news conference almost six years ago, he joked about the need for a machete to accomplish a task that had vexed club leadership for a decade. Soon, a fan presented him with an actual machete.
He put it to good figurative use, carving a deal with the city for the 20,000-capacity venue two blocks from Nationals Park. It will open July 14.
With a home in Washington and regular interaction with the front office and technical staff, Levien saw the team as not only a business opportunity but a passion. He has attended matches regularly, dropped by preseason training camp in Florida, and built strong bonds with General Manager Dave Kasper and Coach Ben Olsen. Last week, the trio toured the Audi Field construction site together.
With Thohir cashing out, sources said Levien feared a new investor arranged by Thohir would force him out. For that apparent reason, Levien is active in identifying new benefactors. His 22 percent stake in the team could very well rise, perhaps to the point that, in a group with many investors, he holds the largest share. Either way, Levien is likely to remain invested and involved.
So with a new stadium and new leadership, what’s next?
United seems ready to unlock the coffers and increase spending on the roster. Word of caution: The team promised last year that, with the gateway to fresh revenue from Audi Field, it would begin targeting high-end players. But amid a flurry of moves late last summer and over the winter, United’s payroll didn’t change much. New players replaced outgoing players of similar salary.
The transfer and trade window closes May 1, leaving little time for substantial moves. Despite an 0-3-2 start, Olsen believes this group will soon turn the corner. Besides, there aren’t many players available at the moment.
The window will reopen July 10. That is when, over four weeks, United can make the promised splash.
Sports Illustrated reported the team has reached out to Mario Balotelli, the supremely talented but enigmatic Italian striker whose contract with French club Nice expires this summer. A source told the Insider that, besides Balotelli, United has built a wish list that includes at least seven players: up-and-comers, presumably from Latin America, and famous figures, including Mexican national team star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (West Ham) and Argentine forward Carlos Tevez, the former Manchester City and Juventus star who rejoined Boca Juniors this year. Hernandez turns 30 this summer, Tevez is 34.
Whether United is able to finalize any high-end deals remains to be seen. But with new investors coming aboard and revenue on the rise, D.C. is positioned to begin an MLS comeback.
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