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Off-the-radar: An exclusive interview with Kevin Payne

Ahead of El Clásico, Sarthak Kumar talks about US Club Soccer's partnership with La Liga with its CEO, Kevin Payne.

Glenn Gray

What, or who, inspired you to play soccer while growing up?

There was very little youth soccer in the area I grew up in the NY suburbs in the late 1950’s and 60’s.  My first real exposure was watching the 1966 World Cup final on TV — I think it was the old Wide World of Sports show — and my friends and I started playing our version of the game in my backyard.

How was it like being the President of DC United during such a successful time, and bringing pro soccer to Washington?

Founding and operating DC United was probably the most fulfilling professional experience of my life. It was a very exciting — and chaotic — time, beginning a new league against tremendous and active hostility in many quarters, especially among the news media. We were committed to creating an authentic club, with a culture our supporters would embrace. We ended up being the most successful professional soccer club in American history.

How do you feel about foreign clubs, such as Rayo Vallecano, investing in American teams, given that there is a history of such franchises failing, for example California Victory and Chivas USA?

I don’t have a problem with it as long as they understand the way the league they are entering is organized, and they have respect for the American marketplace, which is very different from Spain, for instance. I feel concern in some cases because European based soccer clubs are often not operated in the same business-like manner in which American clubs in our other sports, or in MLS, tend to operate.

How has US Club Soccer’s partnership with La Liga benefited the MLS and its teams?

Our partnership with La Liga is not aimed at MLS, although I believe La Liga and MLS are also looking at ways in which to cooperate, and we hope to be part of any programming that arises from that.

What are the long-term plans for the partnership, apart from the training curriculum provided?

From our point of view, the major emphasis of the partnership is trying to expose our coaching community to the training methodology employed by the La Liga clubs in order to create a new youth soccer culture, and ultimately produce better skilled players. We will be broadening the La Liga Formation Methodology course in years to come to provide additional levels of training, including time spent at clubs in Spain. On the other hand, we want to help La Liga establish its brand in the US through the relationships we build with leagues, clubs and coaches. We are very strong supporters of MLS, but recognize it is a big world and with modern technology American fans are able to enjoy soccer from many different leagues. Over the years, the EPL has done a great job of marketing itself in the US, but one side affect of that is the influence of English game — which is not the model which I at least, would like to see young players emulate — has grown disproportionately. I would like to see a much greater percentage of our coaches and players aspire to play a game which looks more like what we see from La Liga.

What is your vision for American soccer in the future, and how does La Liga help achieve that vision?

I think young players, and their coaches, are highly influenced by the soccer they watch on a regular basis. In that regard, I’d rather they try to embrace the philosophy of football they see in La Liga than in other leagues.  I believe our sport will continue to grow at every level in the US, but we still need to do a better job of changing the emphasis in our youth soccer from developing winning youth teams, to developing great youth players.

Given the large influx of Spanish players to the US, do you see American players move the other way and try out European leagues such as La Liga?

I think La Liga has proven a tough nut for American players to date. Part of that is that La Liga has so many good domestic players that it really only needs to import well established world stars, and frankly we haven’t created any of those on the men’s side.  I would like to see more young American players focus on technique and intelligence at an earlier age, so maybe we can produce some players who will be starts in La Liga in the future.

Any predictions or expectations that you have for El Clasico on April 3?

I think Barca is at a different level right now, especially with their three great attacking players. I expect the outcome to be 3-1 Barcelona over Real Madrid.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

I will continue to work to improve the game in America, for every young player, and work to support MLS and our National Team programs.

A huge thank you to Kevin Payne for taking time out to do this, and to Glenn Gray for arranging the correspondence.

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