Football.com Interview: Kevin Payne, CEO of US Club Soccer
For all the strides soccer has made over the past couple of decades in the United States, Kevin Payne still worries about the failure to nurture a genuine world class male field player.
“I don’t think our best players are any better than they were 20 plus years ago,” said the US Club Soccer CEO. “I am always hopeful but I do think we have plateaued a bit. On the boy’s side, our results have been the worst they’ve been since the 1980s.”
If he’s giving out grades, it would be Should do better.
“We haven’t produced better results for the U17 and U20 did fine but no better than teams that went before. We’ve missed the last two Olympics and that’s just not good enough.
“Our population is greater than the rest of CONCACAF combined - we should roll through CONCACAF at every age group but we don’t.”
With 25 years of experience in leading positions in US Soccer and the MLS, Kevin is more knowledgeable than most to make a judgement - and better positioned to actually do something about it.
His goal is to help establish that perfect blend of players with different styles from across the country by offering member clubs all the coaching and administrative tools they need to take that next big leap in class.
As a founding member of the MLS Board of Governors who helped establish and run D.C. United with hugely successful results, he knows what the pro scouts are looking for and, having taken the reigns of US Club Soccer in January 2015, he certainly has an expert’s grasp of the playing field in the youth game nationwide.
Kevin wants to change the way we think about soccer. It’s not so different from learning the violin or mathematics, he argues, it’s just a question of getting the right methodology.
With this in mind - and the importance of developing players rather than chasing results, especially with the younger children - US Club Soccer has sought help from Spain, which has an unparalleled record of nurturing players through the youth system to maximize their talent on the big stage.
It has joined forces with LaLiga, the world-renowned pro league featuring top clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid, as part of a long-term partnership intended to recreate the kind of coaching methodology that has been so effective in Spain.
A series of top level training courses run by LaLiga coaches is already under way. There have been sessions in Texas and Northern California - which jointly attracted close to 400 US club coaches - and two more are being held this summer in Virginia and Illinois.
“We must get better,” Gari Fullaondo, the Technical and Methodological Advisor of LaLiga, told the NorCal session. “It is our responsibility to the players.”
“LaLiga is the best league in the world.There is no question that Spain has the best player development,” said Kevin. “Not only is the player development world class, the system creates world class players.
“We were introduced by Nike and LaLiga said they wanted to give something back; to pay it forward. US coaching has tended to be results based and we need a development methodology. Not coaching lessons - coaching education,” he added.
The LaLiga link is part of US Club Soccer’s Player First initiative, a branded, holistic club soccer experience for parents and players, which emphasizes the development of each individual to his or her full potential, and helps parents make better choices about where their children should play.
Kevin explains the system is based on 5 pillars - club development, coaching development, player development, parent engagement & education, and player health & safety.
“The mission is to bring a high level experience for every individual player,” he explained. “Too often in this country, players leave the game too early. Nobody’s smart enough to know what their best position is at 9, 10 and 11. The important thing is to ensure it’s a great experience.”
Another big move being made by US Club Soccer is to cooperate with the ECNL, one of its members currently running the highest standard girl’s league, to repeat that model on the boy’s side.
“I was intimately involved in setting up the development academies,” said Kevin, “and one of the things that we always realized was that no matter how many academies we created we were always going to miss some kids.
“Of the 330 million people in a country close to the size of all of Europe we have 80 full academies, compared to probably about 500 in Europe. What we are trying to do is to create a higher level of boys’ competition,” he added.
But he insisted the boys’ ENPL - which is scheduled to launch in August 2017 - will not be going head-to-head with the academies.
“We are intending to complement the academies, not compete with them,” he insisted. “Most of them will continue to play in their existing leagues - we are not pulling them out.”
Girl and boy players may prefer the ECNL and ENPL teams for any number of reasons, he said. Among them would be if they wanted to continue playing in high school teams, or perhaps the distances are too great or the players don’t want such an intense training regimen.
“We have a lot to do. Our kids are not as culturally immersed in soccer as they are in some other parts of the world. We have to be patient and impatient at the same time,” he said.
“We want to bring more high levels players into the landscape. That’s our goal.”
About Kevin Payne
Kevin Payne became US Club Soccer’s CEO in January 2015.
Payne’s career includes 25 years of high-profile, executive leadership positions within U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer, and he adds invaluable expertise and experience to the US Club Soccer front office.
Payne’s resume is well documented among the top levels of the sport. Payne was hired as the National Administrator of U.S. Soccer in 1989 and soon after became its first Deputy Executive Director and Director of Marketing. Two years later, he was named Executive Vice President and eventually President of Soccer USA Partners, the marketing and game promotions partner of U.S. Soccer.
In 1994, he assembled the first ownership group for D.C. United and was a founding member of the MLS Board of Governors. When the MLS began in 1996, Payne also served as the President and General Manager of D.C. United.
The iconic franchise went on to appear in the first four MLS Cup championships, winning three times, in addition to capturing U.S. Open Cup (1996), CONCACAF Champions Cup (1998) and the InterAmerican Cup (1998) titles – the first major international trophies for any American club.
As Managing Director of Soccer for Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), Payne helped reorganize MLS in 2000 and became responsible for six of the 10 teams in the professional league.
Three years later, he returned to D.C. United and resumed his President and General Manager tenures. D.C. United subsequently won the MLS Cup the following year. The team went on to claim the 2006 and 2007 Supporters Shield for leading the league in points; and in 2008 and 2009, D.C. United made back-to-back Open Cup finals appearances, winning in 2008.
Payne served as a Board Member of the U.S. Soccer Federation from 1999-2014 and maintains his positions as Board Member and Vice Chairman of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which he’s held since 1999. He also served on the MLS Board of Governors and the MLS Competition Committee from its inception until Sept. 2013.
He chaired the U.S. Soccer Technical Committee from 2007-13 and remains on the Technical Working Group. From 2009-12, Payne served on the FIFA Global Committee for Club Football.