A little over a decade ago, Jason Levien joined D.C. United as a part-investor and managing partner, playfully vowing to use a “machete” to clear a political and logistical path to the new stadium they badly needed after so many years at aging RFK Stadium.
Some Black-and-Red supporters were so inspired that they bought Levien an actual machete. And more than shovels, hardhats or bulldozers, the tropical hardware implement soon became the symbol of the long-awaited breakthrough that today is Audi Field, United’s downtown home since 2018. Three years after that, the four-time MLS Cup champions moved into the Inova Performance Complex, their training facility an hour west of the city near Leesburg, Virginia – vital physical infrastructure that has finally brought D.C. up to speed with the MLS norm.
Despite sharing a moniker with the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, however, Audi Field has hosted just one postseason match in its existence so far, a first-round loss to the Columbus Crew in its first year of existence, and the Black-and-Red must go back to 2015 to find their most recent playoff win. Bricks and mortar, as vital as they were for survival, have not been a panacea, even with Wayne Rooney coming and going twice, first as a star player, then as head coach.
“If I look back at my tenure so far with the club, we started at RFK, the club hadn't been to the playoffs in five years when I arrived, and they had no DPs,” Levien noted in a wide-ranging conversation with MLSsoccer.com alongside new general manager Ally Mackay last week. “My real focus was, is building a downtown stadium achievable? Any stadium, for that matter – Maryland, they had looked in Prince George's County, they had looked in Virginia, and multiple ownership groups before me hadn't been able to do that.
“I was laser-focused on that. And we privately financed that stadium, we put a lot of our resources into that, and less of it into discretionary player spend. And we got to Audi Field, we brought Wayne on board, we broke the transfer fee record for other players that came into the club, and we started spending more money. But we haven't seen the results.”
That is the context into which Mackay arrives from Nashville SC as United’s new general manager – the youngest chief soccer officer in the league, and one with plenty on his plate.
Mackay, 37, has immediately taken up management of the search for D.C.’s next head coach, while also signing off on the end-of-year contract decisions announced Friday and diving into the longer-range effort of shaping the squad in his desired direction, not to mention the complex task of relocating his young family of five from Tennessee to the DMV area over the coming months.
He maintains that United’s past – both the trophy-collecting first decade and the more recent woes – holds allure, not risk, for an ambitious executive on the rise.
“We want to put pillars in place, foundational pieces that maybe have not been here in recent years,” said Mackay, who worked as a player agent before joining NSC. “The success of the club has been on the lower ebb and that's OK. When you look at a club like D.C. United, you look at the history that it has, you look at the flags that they have for MLS Cups, these are aspects that we want to ensure that success comes back to D.C. Now that might be short- and long-term, but we want to put a sustainable project in place that we can be proud of, and will hopefully keep the club going for years and years to come. That is the vision for success.”
Mackay was part of a “roundtable” decision-making structure in Nashville, working alongside GM Mike Jacobs – who coached Mackay during his NCAA playing career at the University of Evansville – CEO Ian Ayre, head coach Gary Smith, head scout Chance Myers and data specialist Oliver Miller-Farrell. He’s not replicating that setup at D.C. – not yet, at least – though he’ll carry certain aspects of the approach that made NSC one of the more successful expansion projects in MLS history.
“A strategy that we use quite heavily in Nashville was data and analytics,” said Mackay. “These are aspects that I think are fundamentally, fundamentally important for any club, to have a model in place that is effective, and also has an impact on the league.
“That will touch every aspect of the club, on and off the field. The head coaching aspect is a very important piece, but also having the infrastructure in place is important. Having an idea on the identity of the club and the style of play, that is all great, and that's something that we will be focused on. But I think having the ability to decipher information, understand that information, and make educated decisions, that's a really important aspect.”
That calls to mind the fleeting tenure and unceremonious exit of Lucy Rushton. The respected data analyst preceded Mackay in the GM post before being let go following the 2022 season after a year and a half; she shared decision-making with Dave Kasper, the longtime director who has led United’s technical side since 2001, but is now shifting to what the club calls an advisory role.
Acknowledging that many of those same fans who delivered the machete have since been driven to distraction not just by D.C.’s persistent struggles but by perceived lack of direction, Levien said Mackay would bring “new energy and new life and new rigor” to the club.
“Listen, I think I share that frustration and discontent with the results of the last few years,” said Levien. “And maybe with some of the process that went on. And so getting a leader in place like Ally in soccer operations is what’s most important for us. And one of the things that Ally said earlier today is that we certainly want results, but we're going to value process and how we do things.”
Before a decision-making rubric can crank into top gear, D.C. need a clearer idea of what they wish to be. United drifted into a cost-cutting, bargain-hunting shell of its former self in the final days at RFK, which worked at times to keep them competitive on a budget under club icon and longtime head coach Ben Olsen. But the context has changed dramatically since then, both for the club and the league it helped build.
For proof, simply look at Olsen’s striking success with Houston Dynamo FC, who just advanced to the Western Conference Final in his first season in charge while D.C. watched the playoffs at home – or the massive splash made by Inter Miami CF’s recruitment of Lionel Messi and MLS' widely-heralded increased investment on players.
“This is a real arms race when it comes to player spend in MLS,” said Levien. “The league has big ambitions, as do we. And we want to be at the forefront of those ambitions. And we've got to compete. One of the things Ally and I have talked a lot about is making sure we have the resources and that he has them at his disposal for D.C. to compete at the highest levels of MLS. That's something that we've assured him of … we're going to certainly invest.”
The frugal final days at RFK have given way to significant outlays on stars like Christian Benteke and Mateusz Klich, pushing D.C.’s roster spending from among the lowest in the league into the top 10 this year, according to MLS Players Association documents.
United officials have previously expressed admiration for the Philadelphia Union model and the well-funded academy operation that undergirds it. With D.C. at the center of an even bigger, deeper local youth talent pool than their I-95 neighbors, Mackay and Levien sketched out a future in which the club is both elevating and selling on homegrown prospects while also laying out on established stars, mindful of the size, wealth and sophistication of their fanbase in the capital city.
“We've got one of the best catchment areas in the country. We've got two major metropolitan areas in Washington and Baltimore that are producing talent that we want to cultivate and harness,” said Levien.
“But we also have a downtown stadium in what I think is the best location for any soccer-specific stadium in the United States, where it's situated within Washington, the fastest-growing, most densely-populated area in DC. And we want to capitalize on that, we want to invest in that way. This is a moment that we want to see more investment in players. So I would combine some of the great things Philadelphia is doing, but also with some of the things larger markets are doing in terms of investing in higher-profile players into those markets and raising awareness and raising excitement.”
MLS NEXT Pro in Baltimore
Levien’s words draw attention to the club’s efforts to establish an MLS NEXT Pro side in Baltimore, the traditional soccer hotbed 40 miles northeast of D.C. with no fully-professional outdoor club of its own. United are one of the last MLS sides without an MLS NEXT Pro team and plan to change that, via a partnership with the Charm City’s government to build a small soccer venue, and with it, a better foothold for incorporating Baltimore youth prospects in their academy.
“We want to launch it the right way, making sure that our plans are in place,” said Levien. “We have a whole team working on that. And we're excited about that as it moves forward. And we're committed to it.
“We've got a public-private partnership there in place that we're pursuing to fruition. And as that moves forward, we'll be launching MLS NEXT Pro. What I really like about having it in Maryland – right now we’ve bought vans, that we're bringing kids down from Maryland to Loudoun to train. And that's not the most efficient; we're also not capturing as many of those young players as we can and developing the right way. Having a footprint there is really going to give us a bigger opportunity.”
Mackay noted that D.C.’s connections to Swansea City, the English Championship club owned by Levien and United majority owner Steve Kaplan, also offer distinctive opportunities to players, young and established alike, he’ll be courting for his new project.
“This is a very fertile area historically,” said the Scotsman. “I think capitalizing on that, we talked a lot about competitive advantage, for example – the DMV area, the [youth] fertility levels here are insane, in terms of the youth, and what that can provide then, creating a pipeline that will hopefully reach the first team. If you look at the roster right now, there's a lot of homegrowns there that are already on the roster, I think assessing Baltimore as well, various different aspects and putting those foundational pieces in place where that pipeline is then feeding into the first team … I think we can really utilize and focus our efforts on that.”