Commentary: Payne an MLS institution, and DC is grateful

WASHINGTON – If Major League Soccer, a league still shy of its 20th birthday, can claim to have “institutions,” Kevin Payne is most assuredly one of them.

A leading figure in the creation of D.C. United as well as its day-to-day management for most of the club’s existence, Payne was an ever-present figure around RFK Stadium from 1996 until Tuesday, when he announced he was leaving the club – and not just in the imposing venue’s executive suites and mezzanine boxes.

Proud, prickly and enduringly passionate, “KP,” as he is known to most people in and around United, probably actually preferred spending his time downstairs, whether in the locker room, pacing the sidelines of the training field or even at pregame tailgating in Lot 8 with his team’s most ardent fans.

In fact, Payne helped lay the groundwork for the entire concept of “supporter culture,” an area in which United was miles ahead of the MLS curve. While other clubs chased the suburban family demographic during the league’s early years, D.C. reached out to the region’s soccer community and eclectic ethnic populations, helping fans build the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava supporters groups and celebrating the loud, proud matchday atmosphere that resulted.

“I think the D.C. United front office went out of its way to recognize and work with its supporters clubs and set the tone for successful interaction with its fans,” said Screaming Eagles founder Matt Mathai in an interview with MLSsoccer.com last year. “For example, we requested, and received, the right to control ticket sales for our members. D.C. United was the first to agree to something like this.

“They basically agreed to hand over tickets to prime midfield sections [at a discount] to us. This was borderline revolutionary, they took a risk that we'd be able to generate visual interest and committed ticket sales right at midfield.”

READ: Amid sadness & excitement, Payne exits D.C. United

Payne always seemed more comfortable voicing his opinions like an everyday fan than employing the careful language of corporate America.

That directness helped him rack up thousands of dollars in fines over the years, like the occasion in 1999 when then-Commissioner Doug Logan slapped him with a $15,000 levy for calling a card-happy Scottish referee’s performance an “absolute travesty,” among other choice words.

A few years later, he courted Don Garber’s wrath when he claimed, “There are a lot of games in our league that I can't watch,” lamenting some teams’ dour defensive tactics.

His own squad was not above similar reproach, either. Few on hand will ever forget when an incandescent Payne ripped United’s performance after their stunning 2005 playoff capitulation to Chicago – and did so in the D.C. locker room, within earshot of the entire team. 

"We just didn't show up – perplexing," he said. "I just don't think a lot of players played with a lot of conviction."

Payne is, and will probably always remain, the hands-on type. After all, he dates back to a time when MLS was essentially a start-up, a brand-new entity with big hopes and dreams but limited resources and personnel.

The type of league where a club’s founder didn’t necessarily have the luxury of delegating tasks like uniform design – a seemingly mundane topic that illustrates the vision Payne displayed as he helped turn United into a model club for the rest of MLS.

Take a look at the now-famous photo from the league’s official unveiling of its founding clubs’ kits. Most of them have aged terribly over the years, with garish color schemes and several questionable nicknames largely hatched from the minds of Nike marketing specialists.

United, however, got it right the first time. Modeled by US international and eventual D.C. captain John Harkes, their bold, simple black uniforms stood the test of time and remain among the league’s most recognizable. The same goes for the name and identity, which evoked European tradition but specifically alluded to the union of the nation’s capital and its neighbors in Virginia and Maryland.

Payne’s instincts, and those of his staff, proved correct over and over again both on and off the field, as strong attendance figures, four MLS Cup titles and a host of other trophies over United’s first nine years would suggest.

But five years ago, as the ambitious Black-and-Red aimed for not just league but regional preeminence, it all began to fall apart. United struggled to cope with the demands of CONCACAF play, several acquisitions flopped and as a lengthy playoff drought set in, the club’s long pursuit of a soccer-specific stadium reached new heights of frustration with two abortive deals in D.C. and Maryland.

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The nadir arrived in 2010 as the proudest club in MLS was driven to its knees with a league-worst campaign, calling Payne’s effectiveness into question.

Former star player Ben Olsen was promoted from junior assistant coach to the top spot on an interim basis during that horrendous season, sowing the seeds of this year’s return to prominence – but even that was an abrupt change of course, with Payne having originally insisted that his team’s best-loved figure was not yet qualified for the job.

D.C. United are still repairing the damage those down years wreaked on their brand, with fans finally returning to RFK in droves during this fall’s stirring playoff run and only incremental progress on a new stadium deal.

New owner-investors Erick Thohir and Jason Levien came on board with a bold new mentality this summer, which Payne said has helped convince him that his beloved club is in safe hands as he moves on to a new challenge. And that challenge came to light officially on Wednesday when Toronto FC introduced Payne as their new club president and general manager.

TFC supporters have reason for optimism regarding their simmering frustrations with the team’s underachieving ways. Payne knows MLS inside and out, and stands well-equipped to address issues with fan relations and personnel acquisitions, and perhaps incorporate the work being done at TFC’s new youth academy facilities by former United coach Thomas Rongen.

And despite his decades of service to United, MLS and American soccer as a whole, United’s years in the wilderness may have left Payne with something to prove in his own right. A hungry “KP” looks as likely a savior for the problematic Reds as anyone.