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Toronto FC fires GM Payne as team struggles

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The Canadian Press
9/4/2013 9:52:32 PM
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TORONTO -- Toronto FC has claimed another body.

The underachieving Major League Soccer club fired president and general manager Kevin Payne.

The club has not made the move official but Payne told The Canadian Press that he was leaving.

"I wish TFC and its supporters all the best," he said in a text. "I'm confident the team is in a great position heading into next year and I'm proud of that.

"I understand the desire to move forward in a different direction and want nothing but the best for the club."

Payne said he had no other role with the team but had agreed "to help with the transition."

The former D.C. United executive arrived in late November with the task of turning around the worst team in Major League Soccer. But progress has been hard to find and the team, which has never made the playoffs, stands tied for 18th in the 19-team league with a 4-12-10 record.

Ultimately Payne paid the price for yet more failure at a franchise that is losing fans as well as matches.

It didn't help that he was hired before Tim Leiweke took over as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the team.

Payne, 60, may also have suffered for his penchant for talking. Like the manager he hired -- rookie coach Ryan Nelsen -- he complained this season about the team getting a raw deal from officials.

That is not Leiweke's style.

"I tend to believe that sitting here and revisiting those calls doesn't serve much of a purpose," the MLSE boss said in a July interview with The Canadian Press. "And so we probably have to as an organization spend less time bitching and more time just moving on and understanding that sometimes that's the way those calls are going to go."

Both Payne and Nelsen also complained about the salary cap handcuffs they had inherited.

And Payne liked to talk about his master-plan, detailing imminent player moves that proved to be not so imminent.

Payne also raised some hackles at the club early on when he questioned the fitness level of some players in pre-season without naming names.

"Lots of guys did a great job and came back in great shape," he said in January. "But there were more than one or two who were not even close to being fit. I have a hard time understanding that. Ryan feels the same way ... There's just no excuse for it."

Payne, while clearly dedicated to his task, seemed to come across as thinking he was the smartest man in the room.

Then Leiweke arrived. He oversaw the Los Angeles Galaxy during his time in charge of AEG, helping bring David Beckham and Robbie Keane to the team.

Leiweke spoke favourably of Payne -- "He knows where the bodies are buried and he knows what it takes to build a championship team" -- in a June 4 in-house interview aired on YouTube.

And he said in July he would wait until the end of the season to assess the team's management, explaining he didn't think it was "fair or proper to get into an analysis" mid-season.

Toronto was 2-10-8 at the time. It apparently took Leiweke two wins, two losses and two ties to change his mind.

The club, which plays Saturday in Portland, has eight games remaining this season.

Payne arrived with a flourish, wearing one of his four MLS championship rings to his Toronto FC introduction. The former D.C. United boss routinely wears one of his rings, but wasn't going to at the news conference in Toronto until wife Pam changed his mind.

"I said to my wife this is weird. For the first time since '97 -- when I got the '96 ring -- I'm not going to put on a championship ring," he related Nov. 28 after being unveiled in Toronto.

"And she said 'I think you should put it on.' I said 'Well, I don't want to be always talking about D.C.' She said 'But you need to get people to aspire to win their own ring. Understand that that's the goal.' So that's why I'm wearing it."

Payne was Toronto FC's first president. He became the soccer team's equivalent to the Leafs' Brian Burke and the Raptors' Bryan Colangelo, both of whom have since moved on.

"We found the right guy," Tom Anselmi, MLSE's COO, said at the time.

"I think it's probably THE best signing that we'll make," added head coach Paul Mariner, who was soon to be dumped by Payne in favour of Nelsen.

Nelsen is the team's eighth manager in seven seasons.

Until his resignation as president and CEO just days before joining TFC, Payne had spent 17 years at D.C. United -- helping the franchise find its feet in time for the debut MLS season in 1996.

Payne joined a Toronto franchise that has failed to make the playoffs since its inception in 2007, winning just 45 games over those six seasons.

Toronto (5-21-8) posted franchise worsts in 2012 for wins (five), losses (21), points (23), goals against (62) and winless string (14).

"I really love to build things," he said when asked about why he would take charge of such a floundering franchise.

Payne has helped set the stage for whoever takes over. The team has shed the big contracts of the likes of Torsten Frings and Darren O'Dea and the 2014 salary cap situation will offer far more flexibility.

There is also a base of good young talent at the club. But the franchise continues to disappoint.

Kevin Payne (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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