But he also acknowledged profound disappointment in quickly exiting the postseason each time — and frustration about United’s long-term success: no MLS Cup appearances in 15 years and no conference final trips since 2012.
“There is pressure on us, certainly,” he said in an interview Friday. “We are no longer in the opening act of Audi Field. People are looking to see how D.C. United is going to respond to the second full season in the new stadium, how the team is going to coalesce, and can they take it to the next level?”
United took it to the next level in terms of star power over the past season and a half, employing Wayne Rooney, who coupled with the new stadium re-energized an organization that had been treading water at RFK Stadium.
Advancing to the playoffs — which, with 14 of 24 teams qualifying, is not difficult — should be only a starting point, Levien said.
“This is a team that should be competing at the elite levels of MLS,” he said. “We strived for that in the past, but that wasn’t the expectation.”
So what will Levien do about it?
“We plan to invest in the squad. We have the resources to do it. We’ve been planning for this moment for a long period of time because we’ve known since the summer about Wayne’s departure. Even prior to that, we saw an opportunity to add firepower.
“We’ve got some key decisions to make about who returns, but we think we have a strong core, and we are going to build on that and invest in it."
Rooney’s departure freed $530,000 in salary cap space — the maximum spent by the league on a designated player — but also another $3 million that United paid out of its own pockets annually for the world-famous English striker.
United will not necessarily replace him with someone of similar salary, renown and marketability.
“There aren’t too many Wayne Rooneys out there,” Levien said, referencing the player’s impact on and off the field. “The stars aligned.”
United has already filled the positional void: Ola Kamara arrived around the time Rooney announced he would be leaving.
But on signing another high-profile player to assist with visibility and appeal to casual sports fans, Levien said: “If there is marketing value to a certain player, that is icing on the cake. Everyone likes icing, but the cake better be there, so we better make sure we bring in players who will help us win.
“I don’t think it would make sense for us to respond in a knee-jerk way and say, ‘Where is Wayne Rooney 2.0?’ We’ve got to build a new identity around some new leaders and around the core we have now.”
United was linked with Germany’s Mesut Özil, but the chances of signing the Arsenal midfielder were always slim.
In the meantime, United will need to address whether three players on loan will return: goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defender Leonardo Jara and midfielder Lucas Rodríguez. Hamid and Rodríguez are top priorities.
The contracts of midfielder Luciano Acosta, whose star fell rapidly this season, and defender Frédéric Brillant expire this fall. Acosta is likely to leave, but Brillant enjoyed an excellent season.
Coach Ben Olsen, who is under contract for two more seasons, is part of the overall evaluation.
“One of the assets we have is the continuity in our staff,” Levien said. “We’ve got a lot of faith in that leadership, and it sends a message to everyone in the organization when we stand by our leadership.
“But the results haven’t been there. We have to evaluate this stuff. I have to evaluate what I am doing well and what I am not doing well. I need to turn the eye on myself. Where can I do a better job, and where can everyone do a better job?”
On other topics, Levien said:
- United plans to make several hires, including another assistant coach, a second international scout and someone to join General Manager Dave Kasper and technical director Stewart Mairs in player evaluation.
- Some players will train for a few weeks at Swansea City, the Welsh club in England’s second division owned by Levien and United co-chairman Steven Kaplan. Griffin Yow, 17, might train with a German club after the Under-17 World Cup.
- With the offseason not officially starting for several weeks, United is planning to play a friendly against Bermuda’s national team in mid-November on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- United is in talks with both traditional TV and streaming services for local coverage next season after cutting ties after less than one year with FloSports, an online platform. Local availability will grow more prevalent next year without national TV wanting Rooney in the spotlight.
- D.C. is planning to install safe-standing sections for the supporters’ groups behind the north goal. Railings will separate the rows, allowing fans to remain on their feet throughout the match, as is customary in soccer. Several MLS stadiums have such sections.