Every year MLS teams get a bit more autonomy, and so last year I decided to start my annual MLS Ambition Rankings, a top-to-bottom classification of the league's 19 teams based on their aspirations.
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? Do you have a jersey sponsor? 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?
This year I also added another consideration: How well does your team back up what it says it'll do? And which teams do things the right way? Your team may have big ambitions, but you'll get docked a few spots if competence issues keep you from reaching them (see: New York, Toronto).
Where does your team rank? Let's break it down (change from 2012 in parentheses):
1. Los Angeles Galaxy (-)
The winner of the past two MLS Cups is the league's gold standard in ambition and follow-through, spending big on the right Designated Players (David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane) and the right coaches (Bruce Arena is the highest-paid MLS coach) and getting championship payoffs. People listen when Tim Leiweke, the boss of Galaxy owner AEG, says he wants to sign Kaká -- because Leiweke was the guy who landed Beckham. L.A. has the chance to add two unprecedented feats in 2013: Becoming the first MLS team to win three straight MLS titles and the first to reach the FIFA Club World Cup. The big question is what will happen with AEG up for sale. Chances are Leiweke will stay on and the spending will continue or accelerate, but there's always the possibility that new ownership could take things in a different direction or the Galaxy could be spun off on its own.
2. Seattle Sounders (-)
By far the most successful MLS team at the gate, the Sounders averaged more than 44,000 fans a game in 2012, putting Seattle near the top of any league in the world. Small wonder that AEG's Leiweke values the Galaxy and the Sounders at around $150 million each. But it's a measure of Seattle's ambitions that majority owner Joe Roth recently told the team's fans that the Sounders will do what it takes to win their first MLS Cup, including spending big money on a new Designated Player. No atmosphere in MLS feels more major league than Seattle, but with that following comes the pressure to win trophies. This is what sports are supposed to be about.
3. Sporting Kansas City (+1)
Sporting president Robb Heineman is the Mark Cuban of MLS, living and dying for his team and emerging as a must-follow on Twitter (@RobbHeineman). What's more, Heineman and the local owners have turned around this team since buying it from the Hunt family, building a state-of-the-art $200 million stadium, filling the seats every game and investing in DPs, a solid training facility and an impressive youth-development operation. Winning has followed, including the 2012 U.S. Open Cup. Like Seattle, Kansas City needs to make an MLS Cup final to keep moving forward. On the business side, the continuing lack of a jersey sponsor is puzzling.
4. Real Salt Lake (+3)
The downside: Real Salt Lake realizes it will always be a small-market team. The upside: owner Dave Checketts and his executive team do everything they can to maximize and protect their investments. Salt Lake may not win trophies every year, but the organization simply does things the right way, looking at the big picture and planning for the long term, whether it's locking up key contributors to contracts or building its youth development academy. Nor is the team afraid to make big decisions on cutting bait and rebuilding, as we saw in the recent trades of Jámison Olave, Fabián Espíndola and Will Johnson.
5. New York Red Bulls (-2)
The Red Bulls clearly have high aspirations, saying they want to become the most accomplished soccer franchise in North America, and no MLS team this side of Los Angeles spends as much money on players, signing Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Márquez in recent years. But Márquez was the biggest money waste in league history before departing recently, and New York gets pushed down a few spots here for competence issues. Owner Dietrich Mateschitz is an absentee owner, and his new Red Bull soccer boss, Gérard Houllier, has shown so far that he doesn't get MLS, displaying awful timing by adding unnecessary distractions into last year's playoff run (firing GM Erik Solér, making ex-coach Hans Backe a lame duck) and failing to hire a new coach yet. (The draft is in two weeks, guys.)
6. Houston Dynamo (+3)
The Dynamo move up in the Ambition Rankings thanks largely to a sparkling new stadium -- located in an urban setting, unlike stadiums for Chicago, Dallas and Colorado -- but also because Houston understands how it wants to operate and then executes. The Dynamo have a core group of good U.S. players and started getting its rare DP signings right (Óscar Boniek García), and coach Dominic Kinnear is a playoff marvel. The ownership situation is a bit clearer now, too, with Leiweke telling me AEG plans on keeping its 50-percent share of the club long-term after a near-sale to the Houston Rockets owner. As with AEG's Galaxy, chances are that means continued or increased spending on the team with the impending sale of AEG.
7. Portland Timbers (-1)
A brutal season on the field in 2012 shouldn't mask the reality that owner Merritt Paulson (a fun follow at @MerrittPaulson) has big aspirations for his club, which boasts the most rabid home atmosphere in MLS. The club has an impressive new training facility, and the buzz for soccer in PDX is palpable: When I visited at the start of last season, there were billboards all over town reading WELCOME KRIS. The only problem: DP signing Kris Boyd was a bust. Paulson is betting heavily on new coach Caleb Porter, hoping Porter can translate the success he had in the college ranks. At some point, though, Paulson's risks need to start paying off.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps (+2)
The Whitecaps continued showing in year two of their MLS adventure that they're a credible operation on and off the field, and their investment in one of MLS' few youth residency programs is a sign Vancouver is building smartly toward the future. Sponsorships are among the highest in MLS, and the team hasn't been afraid to invest in a number of DPs, who so far have had mixed results. If the Whitecaps weren't located so close to fellow Cascadia teams Seattle and Portland, their impressive start in MLS might get more attention league-wide.
9. D.C. United (+5)
One of the biggest movers in this year's rankings, United picked up a huge infusion of confidence (and capital) when new managing partners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien took over in 2012. After spinning its wheels for years trying to get public support for a new soccer stadium, D.C. seems to be making real progress toward getting it done, thanks in part to Levien's political connections. Moreover, the new owners are providing more financial support to the coaching staff and appear to have given the green light on new DP signings (which will need to be better than previous ones). Losing president Kevin Payne to Toronto is a big move, but United's new owners say the team's business side needs to be doing better.
10. Toronto FC (-5)
Based on financial outlay and stated aspirations, Toronto should be higher on this list, but wholesale ineptitude brings the Reds down a few spots. TFC has spent heavily on youth development, coaches and players, building the third-most-expensive MLS payroll in 2012, but another year without playoffs has turned off fans. Only Chivas USA had a bigger percentage decline in average attendance in 2012. Adding Kevin Payne as the team's top executive brings a charismatic public figure who has had success in MLS
11. Montreal Impact (+1)
So yes, we now know that Impact owner Joey Saputo is a vocal, ambitious guy who isn't afraid to sign big names (Marco Di Vaio, Alessandro Nesta) or court controversy by dumping a coach who had a promising first season (Jesse Marsch). What we don't know yet is whether Saputo can back it up, or if he's just full of hot air. Stay tuned.
12. San Jose Earthquakes (+5)
The Earthquakes had a great regular season in 2012, winning the MLS Supporters Shield, but their rise in the Ambition Rankings has more to do with their success in breaking ground on a new soccer stadium. No team in the league needs a venue change more than San Jose, which has been playing in a small college stadium. The club still needs to build more buzz in the Bay Area -- goal-scoring machine Chris Wondolowski should be a bigger star than he is.
13. Chicago Fire (-2)
While the Fire have one of the league's top PR staffs, owner Andrew Hauptman has been mostly a cipher and the team feels decidedly vanilla as a result. Not since former GM Peter Wilt was involved with the team have the Fire been near the top of the league in generating interest, with the possible exception of the Cuauhtémoc Blanco years. Coach Frank Klopas has helped things on the field, but you get the sense this club could be doing more. Section 8 remains one of the best fan groups in MLS, but Toyota Park hasn't been the success many had envisioned (and has caused the town of Bridgeview to lose millions).
14. Philadelphia (-6)
Last year I wrote the Union was a club that was going places, but I had no idea those places would be the depths of a truly awful 2012. From the trades of fan favorite Sébastien Le Toux and captain Danny Califf, Philadelphia seemed like it was trying to antagonize its own supporters last season. Things only got worse. Rampant losing led to the firing of coach Peter Nowak, which led to ugly court filings between Nowak and the team that included claims of player abuse. CEO Nick Sakiewicz, who has been successful in MLS, got this club off to a good start and could engineer a turnaround. Meanwhile, Searching for Sugar Man continues as we hope to hear more from owner Jay Sugarman in the future.
15. Colorado Rapids (+1)
Stan Kroenke continues to be an absentee owner for a team that is notoriously cheap when it comes to paying coaches and spending on players, but there have been some bright spots with the addition of president Tim Hinchey and a modest increase in average attendance to 15,175 in 2012. That said, the Rapids still don't have a major league buzz around them, and the soccer stadium in Commerce City hasn't delivered on expectations.
16. Columbus Crew (-1)
It's no coincidence that the two teams owned by the Hunt family are No. 16 (Columbus) and No. 17 (Dallas) in the Ambition Rankings. The Hunts were important for the start of MLS and helped save the league by owning three teams when MLS was in danger of folding in 2002, but their overly conservative approach has resulted in the rest of the league leaving them behind. (Kansas City only made its big turnaround once the Hunts sold the team.) Columbus has created little buzz since the championship days of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and there doesn't appear to be much pressure to win here. An increase in average attendance to 14,379 in 2012 helps the Crew edge out Dallas.
17. FC Dallas (-4)
The good news: Dallas' youth development efforts have been rather impressive. The bad news: Just about everything else connected to this club is trending down. FCD made a huge mistake building its stadium (now sponsorless) in suburban Frisco instead of closer to downtown, and the result is a lack of buzz in the city. Team president Doug Quinn is on indefinite leave after being arrested on a domestic violence charge in New York City. After a playoff-less 2012, it seems like a long time since this team reached the 2010 MLS Cup final.
18. New England Revolution (+1)
In some ways, the Ambition Rankings are a classification of MLS owners, and the Kraft family continues to show that it cares little about the Revolution (especially in comparison to their New England Patriots). While several MLS teams were announcing exciting new player signings in December, the Revs stopped the presses by announcing a new Twitter hashtag for the team. Talk of building a soccer stadium closer to Boston sounds more like a pipe dream than anything real, and I still get more correspondence from New England fans angry at their ownership than from any other team's supporters. The only reason New England moved up one spot from last year is due to the absolute meltdown at Chivas USA.
19. Chivas USA (-1)
Laughingstock owner Jorge Vergara has almost no credibility at this point for a reason: He's a demagogue who (when he has deigned to act like he cares about Chivas USA) has cast the blame for this disaster of a club on everyone but himself -- in particular the many coaches he has hired and fired. After years of ignoring his U.S. outpost of Chivas de Guadalajara, Vergara finally appeared at an L.A. press conference in 2012 and theatrically blamed ex-coach Preki for supposedly turning down the chance to acquire Javier Hernández a few years ago. Chivas players shrug when you ask them what's going on at their club. One bright spot is the hiring of the respected Dennis te Kloese as the new sporting director, but one wonders how much time he'll have for Chivas USA when he also has the same spot at struggling CD Guadalajara.