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Black Friday at RFK as D.C. United slash staff

By Charles Boehm

Earlier this month D.C. United concluded their most successful season in half a decade, qualifying for the playoffs and falling just one game short of the MLS Cup.

But today United made the sort of moves you might normally expect from a last-place finisher, parting ways with seven staff members, including Executive Vice President Stephen Zack and Director of Ticket Operations and Customer Service Fred Matthes, two well-loved figures who have worked for the club since its inception.

D.C.’s communications and marketing department was also slashed. Director of Marketing Communications Kyle Sheldon and Director of Digital Media Mark McClure, widely-respected characters who played instrumental roles in United’s forward-leaning internet and social media initiatives, are departing the club as well.

Following on the heels of longtime president and CEO Kevin Payne’s departure earlier in the week, the cuts reflect the increasing involvement of new owner/investors Erick Thohir and Jason Levien, who acquired controlling interests in United alongside incumbent owner Will Chang over the summer.

Levien and Thohir have talked a great deal about their desire to hash out an agreement for a new stadium with District of Columbia officials, boost the team’s prospects for a fifth MLS Cup championship and market the club more widely overseas.

Apparently cost control is a high priority for the new regime as well.

United officials have long acknowledged the fact that the Black-and-Red lose money every season thanks to their challenging lease terms at antiquated, oversized RFK Stadium.

Washington Post soccer reporter Steve Goff broke the news about Zack’s departure on Friday morning via his @SoccerInsider Twitter account. He subsequently sent out further tweets with quotes that would seem to have come from anonymous United sources stating that “major restructuring” is taking place due to the club “hemorrhaging money.”

One source close to the club told Soccerwire.com that the layoffs were “not a total surprise” given Levien’s desire to cut overhead costs. While Thohir, an Indonesian media mogul, carries the ownership group’s main financial muscle, he remains half a world away and has entrusted Levien with more hands-on duties.

A humble, gregarious personality, Zack played a major role in fostering the strong fan relations and inclusive supporter culture that made United the model club in Major League Soccer’s early years. Some fans had already begun advocating for him to be selected as Payne’s successor.

Now it looks as if Levien and Thohir are seeking a more thorough overhaul as they seek a route towards financial sustainability and long-term growth.

In slightly more positive news, late Friday afternoon Goff’s Post colleague Jonathan O’Connell reported that D.C. government officials have begin discussions with Potomac Electric Power Co. (the regional utility company better known as Pepco) over a portion of land owned by Pepco that would likely be needed to build the soccer-specific stadium which has been proposed for Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C.