MLS team ambition rankings
MLS Ambition Rankings measure MLS teams by their commitment to winning
The Galaxy proved its ambition by bringing in a third Designated Player signing
The new breed of thirty-something owners are dynamic and focused on winning
The 2012 MLS season won't start for another three months, but there's plenty to talk about in the big picture as the league takes the next steps toward being a truly major sport in North America. That's why I decided to come up with my annual MLS Ambition Rankings: a measure of the aspirations of all 19 MLS teams.
MLS has often been described as "soccer socialism," and for good reason. The league is built on a single-entity model, in which the owners are in business together, contracts are owned by the league and a tight salary cap keeps spending from spiraling out of control. But the reins have been loosened in recent years. The Designated Player rule went into effect in 2006, allowing each team to have players (up to three these days) whose salaries aren't limited by the cap. New stadiums have been built, and MLS HQ has allowed individual teams to have more control than they used to.
As a result, we've started to see some perestroika in MLS's soccer socialism, but only in certain circles. Some MLS teams are more ambitious than others. My MLS Ambition Rankings take into account a number of factors. Do you spend money on Designated Players? Have you built your own soccer stadium? Does your owner/chief executive speak out publicly (on Twitter and elsewhere) and act like winning is the most important thing in the world? Does the atmosphere at your games feel major league? Do you create real buzz? Do you pony up for training-table meals, practice facilities, youth development programs and first-class travel for international competitions?
Where does your team rank? Let's break it down:
How many MLS teams would drop the nearly $10 million on a third DP in midseason that the Galaxy did to land forward Robbie Keane? Owner AEG made the Galaxy the gold standard for MLS ambition by signing David Beckham in '07, and L.A.'s aspirations extend far beyond the United States. "We want to be the first club in the history of soccer in this country to do $100 million gross revenue a year and join the elite in the rest of the world," says AEG president Tim Leiweke, who isn't afraid to talk big and spend gobs of money on the players, the sparkling stadium and training fields, the coaching staff (Bruce Arena is the highest-paid coach in MLS) and travel accommodations. As midfielder Mike Magee says, "I hear horror stories about how other teams travel, but when we go to CONCACAF tournaments we're on the Lakers' plane. Everything's first-class."
No stadium atmosphere in MLS feels more major league than the one in Seattle, where the 2011 average attendance (38,496) dwarfed that of every other team in the league. This week David Stern called the Sounders the most successful expansion franchise in the history of American sports, and he's probably right: Seattle's ownership has done nearly everything right from the start, and fans have responded, on occasion competing for the largest soccer crowd in the world for regular league games. Majority owner Joe Roth may not be local, but he's a highly visible leader (along with minority owners Drew Carey and Adrian Hanauer) who exults in success (three straight U.S. Open Cup titles) and seems truly pained by failure (exiting the '11 MLS Cup playoffs).
You can't fault owner Red Bull for spending money, whether it's on the sparkling new $200 million stadium in New Jersey or on DPs like Thierry Henry and the much-maligned Rafa Márquez. Clearly, MLS's New York franchise is in much better shape than it was, say, five years ago. But there are caveats. The Red Bulls don't create much buzz in the Gotham area, Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz is an absentee owner, and the practice facility at Montclair State isn't impressive. As for the trophy case, yep, it's still empty.
Five years ago, I never would have predicted that K.C. would become one of the most ambitious teams in MLS. But that's exactly what has happened under the new local ownership, which has built a remarkable $200 million stadium, invested in DPs and held the team accountable for success. "I think we have a great opportunity to grow -- as long as we f---ing win," says CEO and co-owner Robb Heineman, one of a new breed of thirty-something MLS owners who's all about winning. (Heineman is a must-follow on Twitter at @RobbHeineman.)
MLS's first Canadian club isn't afraid to drop cash; witness the league's third-highest payroll (including DPs Torsten Frings, Danny Koevermans and Julian de Guzman), expensive coach Aron Winter and a $20 million investment in MLS' most ambitious youth development academy. TFC has a terrific group of hardcore fans, but the buzz has worn off as the team has continued to fail to reach the MLS playoffs. It remains to be seen how the sale of 75 percent of owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to Bell Media and Rogers Communications will affect the team's ambitions moving forward.
The Timbers may not have the numbers of fans that archrival Seattle does, but the fan environment at Jeld-Wen Field is absolutely incredible, rivaling any atmosphere in Europe or Latin America. Merritt Paulson is another heart-on-his-sleeve thirty-something owner (follow him on Twitter at @MerrittPaulson) who can be seen occasionally in the middle of the raucous Timbers Army and who seemed crushed when Portland failed to make the playoffs in its first MLS season. Portland hasn't built a mind-blowing new stadium like Kansas City has, but it has spent money to refurbish its urban ground and hasn't shied away from signing DPs like Diego Chará -- and if we're to believe Paulson's Twitter feed, more are on the way.
Owner Dave Checketts has been terrific for MLS, using his clout to get public financing for a new soccer stadium and using his instincts to hire the right former players to run RSL's soccer operation: coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey. No team in MLS gets more good soccer for the money invested than Salt Lake does, and no MLS team has had more success in CONCACAF competition. Yet there's still the sense that Salt Lake is a small-market team in the long run, and let's face it: A big part of ambition is how much money you're willing to spend.
Seattle's expansion effort has gone so well that anything else isn't the same by comparison, but the Union's efforts have been sensational too. PPL Park is a great place to watch a soccer game, and the buzz around this team is real. Owner Jay Sugarman may not be very vocal, but CEO Nick Sakiewicz -- long one of MLS' top execs -- makes up for it in a way that's similar to AEG's Tim Leiweke. On the soccer side, Philly has one of most promising youth development operations in the league. This is a team that's going places.
If the league can finally find a new owner to take over AEG's half of the Dynamo, this team could move upward quickly in the Ambition Rankings. Houston's new stadium is opening next May, and even better it's in an urban setting, unlike the ones for Dallas, Colorado and Chicago. That should ratchet up the buzz a bit in Texas, helped also by the fact that Houston (a 2011 MLS Cup finalist) is almost always one of the league's better teams under Dominic Kinnear. But the ownership situation needs to be solved, and co-owner Oscar de la Hoya needs to use his star power and be more involved publicly (a la Drew Carey in Seattle).
The Whitecaps had the league's worst record in season one, but this MLS team has ambitious goals ("We aim to become one of the top 25 football clubs in the world"), and there are already several promising aspects in place. B.C. Place may not be soccer-specific, but it does provide a solid urban environment, and Vancouver is near the top of MLS in sponsorships sold. The ownership group, headed by Greg Kerfoot and including NBA star Steve Nash, is publicly engaged, and the team has spent money on DPs, some of them better (Eric Hassli) than others (Mustapha Jarju). The youth development plan is also impressive. Now the Whitecaps just need to start producing on the field under new coach Martin Rennie.
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