by Paul Kennedy

Kevin Payne, who played a huge role in the growth of the U.S. national team programs and Major League Soccer, died Sunday at the age of 69 following a long-term lung illness.

Few people have played key roles in so many areas of American soccer: men’s and women’s national team programs, pros and in recent years youth. As soccer took off in the 1990s, Payne was one of the first executives on the business side who combined a strong knowledge of and passion for soccer. He was one of the smartest and hardest-working people in the sport.

Payne was president and general manager, then president and CEO of D.C. United, the first great MLS team, when it won MLS Cups in 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2004. Most recently, he was CEO and executive director of US Club Soccer, retiring at the end of 2021 after holding the position for seven years.

Payne was working as a special events executive in Vail, Colorado, when he met USSF president Werner Fricker, an avid skier, and was approached about joining the small federation staff in Colorado Springs.

He was hired as the federation's national administrator in late 1989 and stayed on as deputy executive director and director of marketing in 1990 following Alan Rothenberg's election as president. But Payne soon moved to Soccer USA Partners, which controlled the federation's broadcast and marketing rights. Both national team programs -- the men ahead of the 1994 World Cup and the women, winners of the first FIFA world championship in 1991 -- took off in the 1990s.

When Major League Soccer was being formed in the aftermath of the 1994 World Cup, Payne was a key player in helping the league get off the ground with 10 teams. Among the investors in D.C. United was API Soccer, a Soccer USA Partners affiliated company, and Soros Fund Management, founded by billionaire George Soros.

With Bruce Arena as head coach and a lineup that featured future Hall of Famers Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, John Harkes, Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos, D.C. United won the first two MLS Cups -- a dramatic 3-2 overtime win over the LA Galaxy in 1996 and a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids before 57,431 fans at RFK Stadium in 1997. In its first four seasons, United played in every MLS final. The only year it did not win MLS Cup was in 1998 when it lost to the Chicago Fire. But it won the Concacaf Champions' Cup and Copa Interamericana that year in what was Arena's last season with United before he became U.S. men's national team coach.

Payne was at D.C. United from 1994-2001 and 2004-12. In between, he was vice president and managing director of AEG Soccer, overseeing the six clubs it operated -- Colorado, Chicago, D.C. United, LA Galaxy, MetroStars and San Jose -- as MLS retrenched after the 2001 season. In 2003, the Galaxy became the second MLS team to open its own stadium. The process of expanding MLS's ownership group began in 2003 when the Rapids, AEG's original team, were sold to Kroenke Sports & Entertainment.