An offseason of change for D.C. United

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Sports,D.C. United,Craig Stouffer

Turnover in front office transforms franchise

Inside the locker room at RFK Stadium, most of the faces are familiar. But upstairs in the office, this team is being referred to as "D.C. United 2.0."

The core of players that got D.C. United back into the playoffs for the first time in five years has hardly changed, a sign of how much it achieved -- second place in the Eastern Conference, reaching the conference final -- and how much more is expected entering the 2013 MLS season.

Meanwhile, the club's longtime leadership has been completely transformed. President and CEO Kevin Payne's resignation in November was not totally unexpected given the evaluation process that the club's new ownership group, led by Jason Levien and Erick Thohir, had undertaken since assuming control in July. But Payne's departure was followed in December by a culling of a half-dozen longtime front office staff, including executive vice president Stephen Zack. It firmly established a new course for a club whose attendance had dropped and had long been stalled in its efforts to secure a new soccer specific stadium.

Up next
D.C. United at Dynamo
When » Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where » BBVA Compass
Stadium, Houston
TV » NBCSN
2013 Storylines
De Rosario, Pontius anchor the attack » D.C. United (17-10-7 in 2012) made a stirring run to the playoffs for the first time since 2007 without forward Dwayne De Rosario (seven goals, 12 assists), who was injured for the last third of the season. Midfielders Chris Pontius (12 goals, four assists) and Nick DeLeon (six goals, four assists) need to learn how to play with the 2011 MLS MVP again.
Addition and subtraction » Highly talented defender/midfielder Andy Najar transferred to RSC Anderlecht, while high-priced midfielder Branko Boskovic and forward Hamdi Salihi both parted ways. Journeyman defender James Riley could take Najar's place, but 33-year-old Carlos Ruiz is a controversial addition at forward along with 20-year-old Brazilian project Rafael.
Defense and depth » Goalkeeper Bill Hamid finished third in MLS in 2012 with 1.03 goals against, but his two red cards are hard to forget. A full season with defenders Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald and midfielder Perry Kitchen is promising. Rookie defender Taylor Kemp, Panamanian midfielder Marcos Sanchez and veteran midfielder John Thorrington give coach Ben Olsen options off the bench.

"It was a shock to me just because of how long Kevin had been here with the club," United midfielder Chris Pontius said.

Rather than search externally for replacements, the owners elevated chief financial officer Michael Williamson to chief operating officer and gave additional responsibility to senior vice president of marketing and communications Doug Hicks.

"I have great respect for the club that they have built that Kevin conceived and grew," said Hicks, who started with D.C. United in 2001. "That said, I feel I'm ideally positioned, knowing what the club is about and having that experience. Internally, we refer to it as D.C. United 2.0, and it's a little bit different. That's Mike's and my vision and how we're building that."

While the rest of the staff remained nervous in the first weeks after the cuts, energy around the club has been renewed since. After a season in which United didn't lose at RFK after its first match of the year but still had an average attendance of 13,846 -- 17th in the 19-team league and the lowest in team history -- Williamson said season ticket renewals and sales of partial ticket packages are all up over the same point 12 months prior.

"There are some glass ceilings that have been broken or removed," said Williamson, who was hired by Payne in 2007. "There have been new opportunities, new drive, and people are really taking advantage of it."

Williamson also has helped repair relations with Events DC, which operates RFK. United will play 15 of its 17 home games in 2013 on more fan-friendly weekend dates, and Williamson said, "That didn't just happen by chance."

It's all part of a larger improvement off the field to match United's performance on it while the club works hard behind the scenes to strike a stadium deal with the D.C. government.

"We're very fortunate to have this interim period before we get into a new stadium -- once we have that opportunity," Williamson said. "Once we get a new stadium opportunity, we're going to be poised to be really successful in that, and we're going to grab as many elements as we can to make sure that we carry that experience over to the new stadium as well."

cstouffer@washingtonexaminer.com

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