D.C. United’s founding president and general manager Kevin Payne died Christmas Day. He was 69.
The Washington Post, who first broke the news, reported Payne’s cause of death was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. D.C. United confirmed his death on Twitter, with the team offering condolences to Payne’s family.
“He will always be remembered as a dedicated champion of our club, MLS, our community and soccer in the U.S,” the statement read.
We are saddened to share the news that our founding president and general manager Kevin Payne has passed away.
He will always be remembered as a dedicated champion of our club, MLS, our community and soccer in the U.S. Our deepest condolences go out to his family. 🖤❤️ pic.twitter.com/qpeogaqKgj
— D.C. United (@dcunited) December 25, 2022
Payne was considered one of the principal architects of D.C. United’s championship run in the late 1990s. His two stints with the club led to 12 major championships in 15 years, establishing one of the first blueprints of success for professional soccer in the United States.
WTOP’s senior sports director Dave Johnson, who is also the club’s play-by-play TV announcer, said Payne’s impact on the D.C. sports world will last forever.
“He had a simple credo: Win championships, serve the community. Which is something the D.C. United started with and that continues to be their backbone. He built the most successful soccer team in the country,” Johnson said. “He was a leader and a force in U.S. soccer that helped Major League Soccer continue to thrive. It took leaders, it took builders with courage like Kevin Payne.”
However, his soccer roots are traced back to his days as a college and semipro soccer player before transitioning to multiple administrative roles in the U.S. Soccer Federation starting in 1989. In 1991, Payne became president of Soccer USA Partners, a marketing firm that owned marketing, broadcast and event promotion rights to the U.S. National Team.
His influence helped in the creation of Major League Soccer and put together the investment group that established the D.C. franchise as one of the league’s original 10 clubs in 1995.
With Payne at the helm, United hired University of Virginia men’s head soccer coach Bruce Arena and brought in an array of talent – including Bolivian soccer stars Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno and U.S. national team players Eddie Pope and John Harkes – that won three of the first four MLS Cup championships.
During that initial run, his United teams won two Supporters’ Shield titles for the best regular season record and the 1996 U.S. Open Cup trophy. Payne also oversaw the team’s growth internationally, as D.C. won the 1998 Concacaf Champions Cup, becoming the best club team in North America, and 1998 Copa Interamericana after defeating Brazilian side Vasco De Gama in a two-legged series.
Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement that Payne’s first run with D.C. United created the first MLS dynasty, which remains “one of the most successful teams in League history.”
“Kevin leaves a legacy not only of success in business and sports, but he will also be remembered for his strong moral compass, his kindness, and his devotion to his friends and family,” Garber said. “His passing will be deeply felt by everyone at MLS and throughout the entire soccer community.
He left his leadership role at the club in 2001 to become the senior vice president and managing director of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) Soccer, which oversaw the running of six MLS teams, including D.C. United.
Payne would make a full time return to United in 2004 as the club’s president and CEO. He ushered in 14-year-old Freddy Adu to D.C. that season, which culminated in D.C.’s fourth MLS Cup trophy. Payne stayed with United until 2012. United inducted Payne into its Hall of Tradition in 2015.
He became the president and general manager for Toronto FC in November 2012 until being fired in September 2013. He served as US Club Soccer’s CEO/Executive Director from 2015 until 2021.
Payne was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in October 2021 in the Builders category for his contributions to D.C. United’s success in the early years of MLS. When inducting Payne during the ceremony former U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said that MLS would not be here today in its current form had the former executive not gotten involved.
“One of the best qualities that we had in those early years was stubbornness. People like Mark Abbott, Phil, Lamar and Clark, we just weren’t going to let it fail. So I’m proud to have been a part of that.”
Hear from Kevin Payne on his National Soccer Hall of Fame induction pic.twitter.com/v24v8n0vMt
— National Soccer HOF (@soccerhof) December 1, 2021
“Kevin worked tirelessly for decades to grow the game in our country and his work has left a lasting impact,” said U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone in a statement.
“His legacy and contributions changed our game at all levels, and he will be remembered fondly as a friend and colleague.”
Payne leaves behind his wife, Pam, and two daughters, Ashley and Rebecca.
WTOP’s Ivy Lyons contributed to this report.