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Another insider speaks out about Kevin Payne’s tenure at DC United



One interesting subplot to the whole Kevin-Payne-goes-to-Toronto-and-then-hires-Ryan-Nelsen-to-coach-but-maybe-not-until-midseason thing is that the shroud of silence that existed around Kevin Payne actions in charge of DC United and his prodigious ego that often led him to those actions began to lift. For so long, the talk of Kevin Payne’s deep involvement with on-field and player recruitment matters was limited to rumors passed around in Lot 8 outside RFK. But now, with Payne’s first major move at TFC showing so many signs of a leader perhaps overly concerned with organizational control (to put it mildly), journalists have felt emboldened to start taking swipes at him.

Goff went so far in his piece on the Nelsen hire to acknowledge that, “For better or worse, the former D.C. United president had his hands in personnel matters in Washington and is well-versed in player acquisition protocol.”

But what journalists said openly was only the first wave of Payne-related info and comment that emerged. The second wave was from those folks who contacted me prior to last week’s Big Question Show where I discussed many of the comments I received from people who had worked with and around Kevin Payne during his time at DC United.

In the wake of the show’s airing, I’ve received even more information including the following tidbits from a journalist who covered DC United during the period it was run by Payne. This individual asked that he/she not be identified for reasons that will become quite evident.

My source confirmed something that had long been believed by the amateur psychologists amongst DC United supporters, which is that so much of Payne’s behavior can be explained by or ascribed to his relationship with the club’s first coach, Bruce Arena and a battle (at least in Payne’s mind) to show that he was just as smart as Arena and just as responsible for United’s dramatic early success.

Everything changed when Bruce left [United], because he’d call bullshit on Kevin and quietly mock him for wanting acceptance as a soccer guy.  Ever wonder why Bruce never tried to return to United as coach? He didn’t want to work with Kevin again AND Payne didn’t want a powerful coach.

At times the tension even went so far as to involve Payne’s wife.

A few years ago, some magazine did a profile on Payne and he claimed to have played “college and semi-pro” soccer, which is complete [nonsense]. That got a good laugh out of the Arena camp and anyone who’d ever seen him kick a ball. [Payne’s] wife found out Bruce and some former players were having a laugh about it and she got all mad and it soured the relationship. Everyone says the right things in public but there is real tension.

And yet, it’s not as if everyone around DC-area soccer had a sour relationship with Payne. This source relates one example of someone in that category.

One of the few people willing to treat Payne like he’s a soccer guy is [ Thomas] Rongen, [former DC coach and current TFC academy director] which is why he was thrown a bone as a broadcaster.

The source went on to discuss United’s unsuccessful pursuit of Caleb Porter, then at Akron, now with the Portland Timbers, to replace Tom Soehn as DC head coach.

After Akron made the Final Four run in 09, Payne thought he had “the new Bruce” and wanted to hire him. That’s pretty much public knowledge.

But Porter is his own man and wanted complete control over personnel and coaching staff and the academy staff and obviously Payne wasn’t going to give that authority to anyone since it would keep him from being involved.

So Porter backed off and Payne hired Onalfo and you know how that worked out.

While Payne had an active role in on-field matters, he was also the leading figure in United’s 10-year (and thus far, unsuccessful) effort to build a new stadium in the DC area.

His personality tended to turn off a lot of people in the DC government because he had a sense of entitlement they didn’t think he and United had earned. That made things hard from a negotiation stand-point. He was REALLY smug when he got the deal in [Prince George’s Country, MD] and a lot of people in DC had a laugh when that deal fell apart and he had to come crawling back to [District officials].

I can’t say for certain they’d have a stadium by now if he hadn’t been involved but I’m comfortable saying he didn’t help the process much.

So what does this all mean? Well, for DC fans it helps confirm a lot of what they have suspected about Payne and the manner in which he ran DC United. To Toronto fans, I think it should help add to what already appears to be a healthy dose of scepticism about Payne. Payne has proven to be the most successful when he has a coach like Arena or Peter Nowak willing to pushback at some of his greater excesses. When a figure like that is not there, Payne’s record is far more mixed.

Now that Payne has fired the experienced Paul Mariner, Payne now has a coach whose professional career he kickstarted (Nelsen), a Director of Team and Player Operations who he hired back in DC (Earl Cochrane) and an Academy Director (Rongen) who owes Payne for multiple jobs over the years. It’s hard to imagine any of these people pushing back too hard against any direction Payne gives that could take TFC the wrong direction. In addition, TFC’s owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment were desperate to hire a “proven soccer guy” that they could hand responsibility for TFC off to while they dealt with the ongoing “tire fires” at the company’s other two (more valuable) teams, the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is no question to me that Payne is now well-placed to run TFC from top-to-bottom, which is exactly how he likes it. If I were a Toronto FC fan, that right there would be a significant reason for concern.

7 Responses to “Another insider speaks out about Kevin Payne’s tenure at DC United”

  1. Not Ben Iroha

    A former United GK revealed to me that Payne screamed at two rookies who were not in the line up but invited to sit in the President’s box for a match. Their crime? Eating hot dogs while in the box.

    • Vincent

      I’m moving to I can root for a real football team … Montreal Impact. That should tell you something.

  2. marco

    While I hate Payne’s ego, I have to admit he seemed to actually care about the fans.
    We as fans like to hate on him, but in DC we had (and hopefully will continue to have in the post payne years) the best supporters situation in the league.
    We were basically given free reign to support DC how we wanted, and what resulted was the best atmosphere in the league prior to portland/seattle.In many ways, DC United (and credit where credit is due : Chicago Fire) may have kept the league alive during the rough years with their exciting matchday atmosphere which kept people talking.

  3. David hindley

    Duane – you claim to be “ambivalent” about Payne but I think that’s complete BS. You appear to be Mounting a smear campaign before a ball has been kicked in anger. If he brings success to the team then I for one don’t care if he is a control freak.


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