In unveiling 17-year Major League Soccer executive Kevin Payne as its first official president Wednesday, Toronto FC fell in line with the other two major-pro franchises under the auspices of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. in having a dedicated administrator running affairs. Like Brian Burke with the Maple Leafs and Bryan Colangelo with the Raptors, Payne will be tasked with lifting TFC to the top table of the city’s sports teams and joining the Argonauts amid the cobwebs of the 21st-century wing of Toronto’s Hall of Champions.
No longer can TFC complain that its affairs were being muddled by soccer neophyte Tom Anselmi, who can finally grow into his day job as the president of MLSE and ponder just how much money the Maple Leafs will be worth when it’s the NHL players on ice instead of the entire season.
Given his track record at D.C. United, Payne might actually do the impossible and restore some of the lustre that has been eroding almost since the day TFC took the field for the first time in 2007, back when BMO Field couldn’t even boast real grass, let alone Real Madrid.
But who needs the nine-time European champions when there’s a chance to take a six-year-old team to the promised land of the MLS playoffs for the very first time?
“This is the only job in Major League Soccer for which I would have left D.C. I personally love a challenge,” said the 59-year-old American, who won four MLS Cups in his time in Washington. “I often talk with people and say ‘What’s the fun of being the manager of Real Madrid and spending crazy money and just buying the best players?’ I really love to build things.”
Clearly, he’s going to need a bigger spade. And a new trowel wouldn’t hurt either.
But, crucially, he does have the glowing endorsement of the incumbent management team.
“I think it’s probably the best signing that we’ll make,” said head coach Paul Mariner, who will be staying on in that capacity under Payne. “His knowledge, his persona off the field, his persona around the building with not only the highest of the highs but the lowest of the lows.
“He appreciates what it takes to be a championship team and what type of people you need, whether it’s the president or whether it’s somebody who’s cleaning up after the players are gone. It’s so important that everybody’s engaged and he’s the type of person who can galvanize people.”
Payne did exactly that to Earl Cochrane during his time in D.C., giving TFC’s current director of team and player operations his start in pro sports as D.C. United’s director of communications. And Cochrane is under no illusions as to what Payne brings to the table.
“You can’t replace 17 years of experience in this league, what Kevin has seen, where the bodies are buried,” said Cochrane, who will be the go-to guy when it comes to player acquisitions. “He knows an awful lot about the trials and tribulations of MLS and how to build a successful team. He was successful out of the gate [in D.C. in 1996] because he made some really smart decisions with personnel and how they attracted the players.”
“He’s also seen success and failure in this league and generally in this league you have success, which is quickly followed by failure, which is quickly followed by success. That’s kind of what a parity league does to you, but we’re in lockstep with the understanding that you can fix that through proper youth development.”
After six years of underachievement and with TFC holding the first pick in January’s MLS SuperDraft, there’s no time to prove it like the present.