On the heels of D.C. United’s most successful season in five years, club president and CEO Kevin Payne was filled with mixed emotions after announcing Tuesday that he was stepping down after roughly 17 years with the team.
“It’s going to be different, obviously,” Payne said in a conference call. “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.”
Payne has served as the club’s lead executive in one form or another for nearly two decades, helping United become the most successful franchise in MLS history with four MLS Cup titles.
In stepping down, Payne called the decision something “that was 100 percent my doing” and said it’s something he’s been considering for roughly six weeks. The 59-year-old declined to comment on an earlier report by The Washington Post that suggested he’s joining Toronto FC.
With new United owners Jason Levien and Erick Thohir joining forces with Will Chang, Payne said he was comfortable moving on, especially as the club continues to work toward building a new soccer-specific stadium in D.C.
“I felt like the time was right. I feel like the new ownership is stable and I think that they’re ready to move things forward,” he said. “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.”
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The timing of Payne’s decision might come as a bit of a shock to some fans after D.C. advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship, their first postseason berth since 2007.
But with a young core of star players, United’s future figures to be bright.
“Cleary the team on the field is on the right track,” Payne said. “The team’s relevance and credibility in the marketplace has been restored.”
Payne was the one who selected current coach Ben Olsen to lead the club after initially stating that United’s former star player was too young for the job. In just over two seasons, Payne’s faith in Olsen helped the club transition into a playoff contender.
“For me, this is a strange day,” Payne said. “Not necessarily a day I even maybe thought I would see, but my wife and I have spent a lot of time talking about this and I think it’s the right thing to do for me.
“I do honestly believe that it will be a good opportunity for United to maybe do things differently and hopefully move to a whole new level.”
Following United’s final playoff game in 2012, a 1-1 draw against Houston at RFK Stadium, Payne said he addressed the team in an emotional speech. At the time, he said he knew there was a good chance he’d be leaving, but didn’t want to burden the players with that information.
“Remaining here at D.C. United was certainly an option,” Payne said. “But I really did come to believe that it made sense for me to try to do something different. I still feel young and I’m excited about a new challenge.
“I have new opportunities I want to explore, new adventures I want to undertake. But that excitement is tempered by a pretty deep sense of sadness, too.”
Nick Cammarota covers D.C. United for MLSsoccer.com