Kevin Payne Leaves D.C. United With A Strong Legacy, And Lots Of Questions

Patrick McDermott

With the departure of Kevin Payne, D.C. United fans are left with several significant concerns, and not just because Toronto FC might actually be good now.

The D.C. United Hall of Tradition is becoming a bit crowded. The names of the players that hang on the wall behind the north goal at RFK Stadium can be pretty easily separated into two tiers. Players like Richie Williams and Jeff Agoos certainly hold their places in United history and we may even have one or two fewer stars on our jerseys right now without them.

But that doesn't mean that their names necessarily should be mentioned next to those of Marco Etcheverry, Eddie Pope, Ben Olsen, and Jaime Moreno. Names like Williams and Agoos deserve to be on that wall at RFK Stadium. Names like Etcheverry and Moreno deserve to be written on the sign that will proclaim the name of our soccer specific stadium.

United has a fabulous history, and there are countless current and former members of the United front office that are a big part of that. But there's only one other name in United history that I'd put up there with Etcheverry, Pope, Olsen, and Moreno. There's only one other name that I'd actually consider placing on that stadium. It's the name Kevin Payne.

Because if you think about it, Payne had just as much to do with those four stars as Moreno.

In the early days of MLS, while acting as United's General Manager, and with lots of help from Bruce Arena, Payne figured out how to win in MLS before any other club figured it out. United won the MLS Cup three of the first four seasons because Payne identified talented and affordable players from places like Bolivia and El Salvador who were supplemented by some of the best soccer players that America had to offer.

Eventually those years ended, as all dynasties do. So Payne went out and signed guys like Christian Gomez, Alecko Eskandarian, and Luciano Emilio and did it all over again.

Shortly thereafter, the rest of the league caught up. Suddenly United's international scouting advantage had evaporated. And eventually, so too did our financial capability. Once Victor MacFarlane quit on United and Will Chang was left holding the bag (and the debt), Payne had less of a budget to work with. United had to adjust.

Then the D.C. United Academy came along. And the homegrown rule came along. And suddenly United held an advantage over the rest of the league again, an advantage that didn't require a large budget. And so Payne built a roster out of talented young American players, two of them coming straight out of our own Academy, added one really awesome Canadian, and took his team back to the playoffs.

Payne deserves lots of credit for making United what it is today, and what it always has been. If you want to go even deeper, it's possible that United might not have existed without Payne. MLS might not have existed without Payne.

And without Payne, this team might have moved out of D.C. several years ago. Whenever the threat of relocation surfaced over the recent past, we could always be assured that this team wasn't going anywhere with Payne at the helm. And I can't help but assume that he wouldn't be leaving at this point in time without having some private assurances that this club's future remains in D.C.

When Erick Thohir and Jason Levien were announced as new ownership partners, we were all hopefully optimistic about what their presence and their deep pockets could mean for the future of United. But we were also just slightly concerned that they would have different goals in mind. Those fears were relieved when they announced that Payne would be staying on as Team President. With so much change happening, it was refreshing to hear that Payne would remain the constant, steering the team in the same direction as it had been traveling already.

Now those fears are rising once again.

Those fears could be relieved fairly quickly. Promoting current Executive Vice President Stephen Zack would send a message that this team's direction won't be changing. There are surely other executives that are currently in the league that would be able to take over for Payne without radically altering our path.

The fears that I have mainly revolve around what I've seen from some other teams in MLS. Now that we have an ownership group with pockets as deep as those of the New York Red Bulls and LA Galaxy, it's a very real concern that D.C. could take on that model. With a new Team President, we might see United begin to pursue multiple big name players while sacrificing the depth on the rest of the roster. That would be a problem for me. That would be a departure from Payne's vision. That wouldn't be the United that I love, or the United that I grew up with.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

In moments of change like this in the past, I've been known to just throw up my hands and say, "Ah well, I trust Kevin Payne," and know that everything will be okay. Well, Payne is gone. So instead, let's put our trust in Olsen. As long as we still have Olsen, it's safe to say that we are still United. At least I hope.

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