D.C. United were one of the first MLS clubs to foster effective, cooperative partnerships with their fans and supporters’ groups and, for many years, the result was an atmosphere in the stands to match the quality of the soccer being played at RFK Stadium.
But after nearly three years of struggle, frustrated rumblings are rippling through the club’s fan base. And the club has responded.
Longtime United president Kevin Payne has initiated an unprecedented series of question-and-answer sessions for season ticket holders ahead the team’s remaining home games.
“It was kind of a logical thing to do,” Payne said this week. “Obviously it’s been a disappointing year for everybody. Our fans want to hear what we are going to try to do to make it better.”
The first Q&A took place on September 4 and the next is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, shortly before D.C. take on the Houston Dynamo at RFK. Payne says he was pleased with the tone of the first session, whose participants were among the first to learn of the club’s decision to schedule season-ending surgeries for Bill Hamid and Chris Pontius.
“I’m always a little surprised when you start to talk to fans and their impressions of certain players are often quite different than ours,” he explained. “There were a couple players that the fans actually were very high on that we think need a lot of work. But generally it was pretty positive.”
United have a myriad of needs to address in the offseason and most of the heavy lifting will take place behind the scenes. But the fan dialogues, timed with the inception of 2011 ticket sales, signal a recognition that the four-time MLS Cup champions cannot take their hardcore supporters for granted after a three-year playoff drought.
“We value what our fans have to say and we appreciate their support, obviously,” said Payne. “There are times where we really can’t share everything, for a variety of reasons, but we do our best to give them an honest appraisal of where we think we are and where we think we’re going to get to, and how we’re going to get better.”
But there’s also a balancing act at work. Payne and general manager Dave Kasper have confidence in their established approaches to roster construction, methods which long stood head and shoulders above the rest of the league. However, United’s extended run of disappointing results has put everyone under the microscope – and under pressure.
“People are disappointed. We’re in last place in the league – they should be disappointed,” said Payne. “But I sort of reject this idea in sports that anger is some sort of a strategy and that somebody has to be blamed, somebody has to be punished. We’re trying to get better, we’re not trying to blame somebody or punish someone. That’s silly. That doesn’t accomplish anything.”
After firing Curt Onalfo in midseason and hiring Ben Olsen in the interim, Payne and Kasper have begun the process of selecting United’s next head coach and player evaluation is in full swing. United even popped up on the international scene a few days ago, with reports linking the club to a move for Roque Santa Cruz, the star Paraguayan striker presently stuck on the bench at wealthy English Premier League club Manchester City.
More concretely, several signings have been made with an eye towards next season and two young internationals from China and Ghana have arrived on trial this week.
“We’re in early days, obviously, and these are a few players that we think can be part of our future,” said Payne of the new arrivals at RFK. “But we have some bigger pieces that we have to spend the offseason finding, and that’s going to take a lot of work.”