Kevin Payne, who played a huge role in the growth of the U.S. national team programs and Major League Soccer, died Sunday at the age of 69 following a long-term lung illness.
Few people have played key roles in so many areas of American soccer: men’s and women’s national team programs, pros and in recent years youth. As soccer took off in the 1990s, Payne was one of the first executives on the business side who combined a strong knowledge of and passion for soccer. He was one of the smartest and hardest-working people in the sport.
Payne was president and general manager, then president and CEO of D.C. United, the first great MLS team, when it won MLS Cups in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004. Most recently, he was CEO and executive director of US Club Soccer, retiring at the end of 2021 after holding the position for seven years.
Payne was working as a special events executive in Vail, Colorado, when he met USSF president Werner Fricker, an avid skier, and was approached about joining the small federation staff in Colorado Springs.
He was hired as the federation's national administrator in late 1989 and stayed on as deputy executive director and director of marketing in 1990 following Alan Rothenberg's election as president. But Payne soon moved to Soccer USA Partners, which controlled the federation's broadcast and marketing rights. Both national team programs -- the men ahead of the 1994 World Cup and the women, winners of the first FIFA world championship in 1991 -- took off in the 1990s.
When Major League Soccer was being formed in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup, Payne was a key player in helping the league get off the ground with 10 teams. Among the investors in D.C. United was API Soccer, a Soccer USA Partners affiliated company, and Soros Fund Management, founded by billionaire George Soros.
With Bruce Arena as head coach and a lineup that featured future Hall of Famers Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, John Harkes, Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos, D.C. United won the first two MLS Cups -- a dramatic 3-2 overtime win over the LA Galaxy in 1996 and a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids before 57,431 fans at RFK Stadium in 1997. In its first four seasons, United played in every MLS final. The only year it did not win MLS Cup was in 1998 when it lost to the Chicago Fire. But it won the Concacaf Champions' Cup and Copa Interamericana that year in what was Arena's last season with United before he became U.S. men's national team coach.
Payne was at D.C. United in 1994-2001 and 2004-12. In between, he was vice president and managing director of AEG Soccer, overseeing the six clubs it operated -- Colorado, Chicago, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, MetroStars and San Jose -- as MLS retrenched after the 2001 season. In 2003, the Galaxy became the second MLS team to open its own stadium. The process of expanding MLS's ownership group began in 2003 when the Rapids, AEG's original team, were sold to Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.
Payne, who was also president of Toronto FC in 2012-13, served on the MLS Board of Governors for 18 years. He was a U.S. Soccer board member in 1994-2004 and was vice chairman of the U.S. Soccer Foundation. In 2011, Payne received U.S. Soccer's Werner Fricker Builder Award and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2021 along with Moreno.
Payne is survived by his wife, Pam, and their daughters, Ashley and Rebecca.
Payne was remembered for his contributions to soccer, the opportunities he gave to players, coaches and staff, and his friendships.
“Kevin worked tirelessly for decades to grow the game in our country and his work has left a lasting impact,” said U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone. “His legacy and contributions changed our game at all levels, and he will be remembered fondly as a friend and colleague.”
Said MLS commissioner Don Garber, "Kevin leaves a legacy not only of success in business and sports, but he will also be remembered for his strong moral compass, his kindness, and his devotion to his friends and family. His passing will be deeply felt by everyone at MLS and throughout the entire soccer community.”
"No matter how much one prepares for the passing of a friend and loved one, the finality of it is still a blow to the heart and soul," said Ed Foster-Simeon, the U.S. Soccer Foundation's president and CEO. "Kevin Payne was one of a kind. He was a positive influence on our game and in the lives of so many — including mine. We will all miss him greatly."
“Kevin Payne was my friend," said Arena, whom Payne hired away from the University of Virginia after the 1995 season. "He was also my boss at D.C. United and one of the most instrumental people in moving our sport forward over the past 30 years. We enjoyed a number of successes together on the field. However, my fondest memories will always be around our friendship and our families. His wife Pam and daughters Ashley and Rebecca were so special to be with. My wife Phyllis, my son Kenny and I are so saddened over the loss of Kevin, and we are so grateful for the friendship we shared with our families and friends. Our soccer world has lost a great man. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Payne family at 2021 Hall of Fame induction: Photo by Wilf Thorne/ISI Photos.