Ally Mackay and Jason Levien Q&A on D.C. United’s path forward

It took a year, but D.C. United finally found a general manager. 

Former Nashville SC assistant GM Ally Mackay is the man United has tasked with helping right the ship. In Nashville, Mackay was part of the team that engineered one of the most consistently competitive expansion sides in MLS history, qualifying for postseason play in each of its three years of existence so far. In that same span, D.C. United has cycled through three different head coaches, a pair of general managers and hasn’t made the playoffs once. 

Mackay’s first task will be a big one: filling D.C. United’s managerial vacancy. The club’s former coach, Wayne Rooney, left for Birmingham City after D.C. United was eliminated from playoff contention in October. 

United’s roster also remains a work in progress. Long-perceived to be one of the thriftiest teams in MLS, D.C. has more recently loosened its purse-strings, but has yet to see any real value from its increased investment. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Mackay and D.C. United co-chairman and CEO Jason Levien sat down with The Athletic at United’s training center to look ahead to the task at hand and unpack Mackay’s vision for the club moving forward. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Athletic: Jason, you’ve interviewed many candidates over the past year — how did Ally get on your radar, and what made him the right fit?

Jason Levien: Ally got on my radar from my old friend Google. I was up, late at night, thinking about who should be the next leader of our front office. I just saw a couple interviews he did, I was really interested in his background as a player agent prior to helping launch Nashville, and the culture he built there. I felt we needed someone who was very player-centric and focused on culture-building, someone who could lend that perspective, but also someone who came from a successful environment. I spoke to many people who Ally worked for, and people who he represented, people who had worked for him, people around the industry to get a sense of what his leadership style was like and his communication style was like. And that took months. 

TA: Jason mentioned your background as an agent, Ally. It’s interesting, you sort of made a leap to ‘the dark side’ in a way, when you transitioned into a front office job at an MLS club. I’m not sure what the dark side is, there, even.

Ally Mackay: (laughs) The dark side is definitely the agency thing.

TA: Do you feel that people who make that transition are uniquely equipped to deal with the realities of being a chief soccer officer or GM? 

Mackay: From my perspective, I think that player identification and acquisition will always be the heart and soul of most clubs. You’re going to live and die by that as a GM, as a scout. Your product on the field is always going to be paramount. From all of that, you see what an agent does, you go and sit in the stands and evaluate players, you go and negotiate contracts, you’re basically a salesman, as well. You have to sell the club to the players, or even to their families — sometimes these players might be really young. That translates into every single aspect involved in being a CSO (chief soccer officer) and a GM because, at the end of the day, if you can do that sales job and you can have that dream there for these players, and these families, it’s the same as the agency world. 

TA: What was your perception of this particular opportunity? You’ve been around the league for a while, and D.C. has had its challenges. It also has a huge upside in terms of history and in terms of its market. What was your impression of the job when you first started digging into it?

Mackay: Part of that allure was what drew me to this place. You look at this club, this is a massive MLS club. It’s won four MLS Cups. Put together all the trophies and there’s been no team that’s been more successful than D.C. Who wouldn’t get attracted to that? I told my wife several times during this process that you can’t necessarily pick where you go, but you can understand what the organization is about. And obviously when you see the history, I think it’s a really exciting project. There has not been a ton of success recently but at the same time, that’s what excites me. Having this chance to look forward with this club is huge for me.

TA: There have been questions in the past surrounding the club about the decision-making tree. About who has the final say in player acquisition, be it the head coach, the GM at the time, whoever it may be. Has that been clarified in this process? 

Levien: The process caused us to think about how we make decisions, yes. This is the first CSO that I’ve hired in my 12th season now with D.C. United. I think building the right structure is something that Ally and I talked about a lot, and it’s something I talked about with a lot of other candidates, too. I think we’ve also talked about Ally bringing other people on board to add to the front office, to bring new ideas and different perspectives in addition to the coaching hire. This is going to be a collaborative process. Ally is the tip of the spear, leading the front office. He’s going to make recommendations with his team and we’re going to huddle up, figure out what makes sense and move forward.

Prior to him coming, I think that we had (Dave) Kasper there for a long time in that role. We brought someone on who we thought was going to grow into Dave’s role; it turned out not to be the right fit. But Ally is assuming that role immediately, at this level. Chief soccer officer.

TA: What is Dave Kasper’s place moving forward? It’s tough to figure out sometimes what it means when someone is retained as an “advisor.” Many times it just feels like industry speak for someone riding out their contract, but largely being removed from any real responsibility.

Levien: That’s not the case here. It is not a gratuitous role. Dave has been here 20+ years. He has won a bunch of trophies with this club and given his heart and soul to this club. I think we want this club to be a place that takes care of its own. We want to have a family feeling. People who give service to the club, we want to reciprocate that. But more importantly, and Ally and I have talked about this, we think Dave has a lot to offer in advising Ally. He sat in the CSO role for a long time and has been there when we’ve won championships and when we’ve made mistakes. Ally is the youngest CSO in the league (at 37 years old) and someone who is doing it for the right time. He is embracing Dave as someone who he can bounce ideas off of.

Mackay: I am also confident enough in my own beliefs and what my visions are that I have no inhibitions in terms of having Dave here. He is a good guy. We’ve had good, productive conversations and I think it would be ridiculous of me to suggest that I can’t work with that. He knows the good — and the bad — that we have at the organization. 

Levien: I think we also expect Ally to be more publicly facing, both within the organization and externally, than our CSO has been before.

TA: Certainly Nashville SC has been successful for an expansion side. When you look at the way that you and (Nashville GM) Mike Jacobs built that project out, what similarities and differences do you see.

Mackay: There are obviously going to be similarities, I think, to Nashville. But I want to put my own footprint on this, as well. Obviously the alignment and collaboration and the potential of making some new hires here will allow me to do that. Data and analytics is something we relied upon heavily in Nashville and something we’ll look to do here, as well. And then there’s assessing the roster, assessing the staff, as well. I’d like to think I’ve been in a number of different agencies and organizations where you understand there are good people everywhere, but that there sometimes aren’t great fits, as well. 

TA: What does success look like for you next year? The common thought in MLS is that making the postseason is a good bar. But at this point, 18 teams make postseason play — that’s a very low bar.

Mackay: For me, process vs. outcome is definitely a big thing. I think if we put good processes in place on and off the field — and that includes an identity and style of play for the group — I think good outcomes will follow. 

Levien: I want us to feel like we are building a winning culture. I want us to go to sleep at night and wake up the next morning and feel like we’re moving in a really good direction. Obviously we want to make the playoffs, obviously we want to go far in the playoffs. We can’t always control that. But I want us to be committed to following a path where we know good things are going to happen. I was really deliberate before we brought Ally in. This is the most important hire on the soccer side that I’ve ever made at this club. Getting his leadership and having him drive the ship forward is really important.

TA: Ally, you mentioned identity — how do you see that identity? D.C.’s previous coaches have always had to be responsive to their roster, to injuries, to all of that. At times last season it felt hard to even identify how Wayne wanted to play, for one reason or another.

Mackay: That’s something that’s super important. Hiring our head coach is obviously a huge part of all of this. That coach will be aligned with how I see things. We need a style of play that is entertaining. I want to try and make this team one that entertains. The essence of the sport of soccer is to entertain, and focusing on those aspects and on putting bums on chairs, as they call it in the UK, these are things that are important to the product. 

TA: You’re already into the process of finding your next head coach. There are typically two schools of thought in MLS: you either hire an MLS lifer with extensive experience in the league or you make an external hire who is new to all of this. What’s your approach?

Mackay: It’s a good question and one we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks. Right now, it’s definitely faceless. Everybody and their grandmother has reached out in terms of projecting potential candidates. Fundamentally, you want to understand what’s important for the organization. This is such a unique league in terms of travel, in terms of the climate, in terms of the roster mechanisms and the salary cap. It’s a huge plus if someone isn’t going through this for the first time. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a domestic candidate, but it could be. What I can tell you right now is that we’re open for business in terms of a head coach and we want to make sure we find the right individual that aligns with our vision for the club.

TA: What’s the timeframe on making this hire? There is no offseason in MLS.

Mackay: It’s true. You are never off the clock. We want to move urgently but not fast. Urgency and speed are different things sometimes. If you move quickly, you can sometimes make mistakes. We understand that there are timelines that we work by and ultimately we have to have someone in place by January 15, 2024. Right now we’re just coordinating a lot of profiles and working on the criteria we’re looking for. Next week we’ll really start sitting down with individuals electronically and assessing what those individuals can bring to the table and whether they’re a good fit. Again, we’re not just going to move quickly to move quickly. We’re going to move pragmatically and get a good understanding of how these individuals will affect the long- and short-term future of D.C. United.

TA: What do you make of the core group right now?

Mackay: There are obviously some good pieces. The hardest thing to do in soccer is score goals and you have a 15-goal striker right now playing up top who has remained healthy and has been a big asset to the club. I had a good conversation today with Steve Birnbaum, our captain. There are guys in the gym right now like Russ (Canouse) or Teddy (Ku-DiPietro). There are good pieces here, and that was part of the attraction to the club for me. There are assets here. You don’t have to blow everything up. We can understand what this roster looks like and how we sprinkle in some pieces with the various mechanisms that are in place to enhance things.

TA: The financial realities of D.C. have shifted a bit in recent years and the club seems to spend more on players than it has in the past. Are you convinced that the club will provide adequate support for you, financially, to allow you to enact whatever your vision is here?

Mackay: I’ve had in-depth conversations with Jason and (D.C. United co-owner) Steve (Kaplan) about all of this and we’ve worked over all that internally. I think there’s definitely some pieces that we want to add and others, like the U-22 initiative, that we can certainly focus on. It’s all part of the project that I think is really exciting. Having those conversations, these are elements that can really set the club up long-term, as well. We want a sustainable model that can be impactful. 

Photo courtesy of D.C. United

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