[MLS SPOTLIGHT: D.C. United]Kevin Payne, who put together D.C. United's original investment group and has been the club's top executive through runs that saw it capture a record four MLS Cup titles, is stepping down as president and CEO. He says the move, which followed the addition of new owners, was "100 percent my doing."
“It’s going to be different, obviously,” Payne said Tuesday. “I’ve been the voice and the face and the conscience, if you will, of D.C. United since 1994. There’s no way it can’t be different. But that can be a very good thing.”
D.C. United won MLS titles in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004 but its fan support has declined at RFK Stadium. For many years, Payne has worked without success on finding a new home for the club in the D.C. area.
That task will now fall to Jason Levien, one of the new United owners along with Erick Thohir, who joining force with Will Chang.
Levein, a former sports agent and Democratic Party strategist, was recently named the chief executive of the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies but will move to Washington.
Payne's extensive soccer background and close ties to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati have made him a major player in American soccer for almost a quarter century.
His involvement in soccer dates back to 1989 when he joined U.S. Soccer. He moved on to Soccer USA Partners, the first marketing agency to successfully market the federation, and was one of the key figures in MLS's launch.
Except for three years when he served as AEG Soccer's managing director, Payne has worked at D.C. United. In 2008, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
“Very few people in American soccer have put their stamp on a club as Kevin has with D.C. United,” said United coach Ben Olsen in a statement. “His loyalty to the team and me is something for which I’ll always be indebted.”
Olsen had joined D.C. United as a player in 1998 and was named interim coach in 2011 and then head coach after Payne initially said he wasn't.
In 2012, D.C. United finished second in the Eastern Conference and returned to the playoffs for the first time in five years. It averaged only 13,846 fans -- its lowest total in its 17 years at RFK and 17th out of 19 teams in MLS -- though interest picked up during the club's exciting end-of-season run.
“I felt like the time was right," Payne added. "I feel like the new ownership is stable and I think that they’re ready to move things forward. Had it been in the recent past, I might not have felt comfortable moving on. But I think now that Will has partners in Jason and Erick, it’s something that I felt very comfortable about.”
The Washington Post reportedthat Payne will join Toronto FC, which has failed to make the MLS playoffs since its launch in 2007, but he did not confirm the move. (Update: Toronto FC has called a press conference for 1 pm ET to announce its new club president.)
“I have new opportunities I want to explore, new adventures I want to undertake," he said. "But that excitement is tempered by a pretty deep sense of sadness, too.”