When D.C. United take the field to kick off a new season in March, the club for the first time will do so without Kevin Payne pulling the strings from the front office.
Payne, the organization's top executive since its 1996 inception, stepped down as president and CEO on Tuesday, leaving after United's most promising campaign — on and off the field — in a half-decade.
"I can't think of anybody else in American soccer that has put their stamp on a club the way Kevin has," coach Ben Olsen said. "He's Mr. D.C. United."
According to multiple reports, Payne is departing to take over as president of struggling Eastern Conference foe Toronto FC. In a conference call with reporters, he declined to comment on his future but said the new opportunity arose about six weeks ago.
The exit marks the end of an era for United, who during Payne's tenure won four MLS Cups, four Supporters' Shields, two U.S. Open Cups and a CONCACAF Champions Cup while establishing themselves as an early league dynasty.
"It goes without saying there will always be a part of me here at D.C. United," said Payne, who got his start in the sport working for the U.S. Soccer Federation in 1989. "My wife and I spent a lot of time talking about this, and I really think it's the right thing to do for me. And I do honestly believe it will be a good opportunity for D.C. United to maybe do things differently."
Making the playoffs for the first time since 2007, United compiled the third-best record in MLS this past season at 17-10-7. D.C. then ousted the rival New York Red Bulls from the postseason before being eliminated by the Houston Dynamo in the conference final.
Payne's departure comes amid "new momentum," as MLS commissioner Don Garber worded it Monday, in United's quest to build a soccer-specific stadium in the District following the July introduction of Erick Thohir and Jason Levien as co-owners to previous sole investor Will Chang.
As Payne noted, a new venue is "by no means a done deal, but I feel really good about where it is in the process."
Levien, a former Sacramento Kings executive and Clinton administration staffer, has become the point man in the stadium negotiations.
"The future of D.C. United will be in very good hands," Payne said. "I do think the new ownership is stable, and they're ready to move things forward. Had it been in the recent past, I might not have felt comfortable moving."
Added Levien: "As D.C. United begins a new chapter, Kevin's leadership has helped to prepare us for this important and potential-filled inflection point in the club's history."
Payne's influence with United also extended to the field. According to Olsen, the executive embraced a hands-on approach in discussing personnel decisions with the coaching staff and general manager Dave Kasper.
"He's been a big part of my life since I've come to D.C., and it'll be a little strange not having him around," said Olsen, who played with United from 1998 to 2009 before taking over from the bench in 2010. "Kevin was always a voice down here. For a young coach, I would always like hearing that. I like dialogue about the game and being questioned, and we'll miss that."
NOTE: United midfielder-forward Chris Pontius was the runner-up for Comeback Player of the Year and Olsen finished third in the Coach of the Year vote, MLS announced Tuesday. The honors were claimed, respectively, by Seattle's Eddie Johnson and San Jose's Frank Yallop.
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