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2014 MLS Ambition Rankings: Toronto FC rises to No. 1

Tim Leiweke, Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley Toronto FC honcho Tim Leiweke is all smiles sitting next to his two huge winter acquisitions, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

How much can my 3rd annual MLS Ambition Rankings change in one year? Well, consider Toronto and D.C. United. One year ago, D.C. was No. 9 and Toronto was No. 10 in my rankings, one man’s subjective measure of the aspirations among MLS’s 19 teams and their owners.

This year? Toronto is No. 1 and D.C. is No. 18.

Such is life in the ever-changing world of MLS, which will add two more teams next year (New York City FC and Orlando) to reach 21. But if one thing remains a constant, it is this: Tim Leiweke is the most ambitious figure in MLS, and that’s the case wherever he may be. For years, Leiweke’s LA Galaxy was the gold standard of MLS ambition — the team that signed David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the team that won two straight MLS Cup titles under coach Bruce Arena in 2011 and 2012.

Then, on March 14, 2013, Leiweke got pushed out as the CEO of Galaxy owner AEG by no less than the man representing the ‘A’: owner Phil Anschutz. Six weeks later, Leiweke signed on as the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the perpetually underperforming Toronto FC. And in January, Leiweke pulled off the doubly audacious feat of committing nearly $100 million to signing two marquee players, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.

Throw in the additions of Júlio César, Dwayne De Rosario and DP Gilberto, to say nothing of plans to expand Toronto’s BMO Field, and Leiweke’s TFC has shot up to the top of the 2014 Ambition Rankings with a bullet.

As always, 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, top-flight practice facilities, youth development programs and first-class travel for international competitions?

How well does your team back up what it says it’ll do? And which teams do things the right way? This year I also sought to back up my rankings with more reporting by sending a questionnaire to all 19 MLS teams asking them about their investments and ambitions for their clubs.

DIGGING DEEPER: Inside the numbers behind the Ambition Rankings 

Where does your team rank? Let's break it down:

1. TORONTO FC (10 in 2013; 5 in 2012)TFCLogo

It all starts with Leiweke and the blockbuster signings of Defoe and Bradley, who are set to make their TFC debuts on Saturday against Seattle (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). MLSE has never been afraid to spend money on TFC — though not on this level — but competence has always been the problem.

Not so with Leiweke, who has a track record of backing up his big bets. Besides proposing a $108 million expansion of BMO Field, MLSE has already built a $19 million training facility and academy for TFC, the league’s most expensive. New GM Tim Bezbatchenko, a numbers-cruncher, has also brought in an entirely new analytics department. Is it any wonder that TFC’s season ticket sales have shot up to 17,000 this season? That’s No. 2 in MLS behind only …

2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (2 in 2013; 2 in 2012)SoundersLogo

Sounders principal owner Joe Roth was the main guy who pushed to acquire Clint Dempsey last August with a commitment of $33 million, ushering MLS into a new era of big contracts to land U.S. national-teamers in their prime (That Dempsey has struggled since then isn’t Seattle ownership’s fault).

The pressure to win in Seattle is immense, not least because the Sounders’ average attendance (44,038 last season) is among the top 50 in world club soccer. No city in MLS feels more “major league” than Seattle. The club’s 34,000 season-ticket holders are twice as many as any other MLS team, and owners Roth, Adrian Hanauer and Drew Carey say they’re tired of not having won an MLS Cup title. The ambition here is so palpable that Seattle (like Toronto with its two stars) is willing to overpay for players like Dempsey. Now that sounds like a big U.S. pro sports league!

3. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (1 in 2013; 1 in 2012)LAGLogo

The moment LA lost Leiweke was the day the Galaxy risked being passed in the Ambition Rankings. Not that LA has turned miserly under coach/GM Bruce Arena and president Chris Klein: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Omar González have all signed lucrative new DP contracts post-Leiweke, and while those seem like smart moves, you do wonder if a Leiweke-overseen club would ever sign a defender to a DP deal.

The Galaxy has invested millions in development, signing seven Homegrown players from its academy and this year becoming the first MLS team to own and operate a second-division pro team (Galaxy II, which will play in third-tier USL Pro). LA has the league’s most lucrative club sponsorship package (About $14 million/year) and local TV rights deal ($5 million/year with Time Warner Cable), offsetting a surprisingly low season-ticket base of just more than 7,500 (No. 11 in the league). Still: If the Galaxy can win a record fifth MLS Cup title, it can safely be called the greatest club in MLS history.

4. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (3 in 2013; 4 in 2012)SKClogo

No MLS club has come close to enjoying a bigger turn-around than Sporting, the reigning MLS Cup champion, which has transformed its city from a soccer dead zone to a bonafide hotbed in a few short years. Under an ownership group spearheaded by Robb Heineman (a Twitter must-follow), SKC built a $200 million stadium that regularly sells out, thanks to a rabid group of season-ticket holders capped at 14,000 (with a wait-list of more than 3,000).

Despite not having Toronto or Seattle money, Kansas City has invested more than $18 million in its training facility at Swope Soccer Village, which will have nine full-size fields when complete. Sponsorships are up to $7.1 million in 2014 (even before a stadium-naming rights deal gets done), and the new local TV deal includes regional affiliates in nine states across the Midwest. With a vast youth development network, SKC’s Homegrown signings include Erik Palmer-Brown (who has drawn the close interest of Juventus) and Kevin Ellis (who scored in CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday vs. Cruz Azul).

5. PORTLAND TIMBERS (7 in 2013; 6 in 2012)TimbersLogo

Soccer just feels “major league” in Portland, both for the Timbers and their wildly successful women’s team, the Thorns. (Only Houston in MLS also owns a women’s team.) Owner Merritt Paulson (another engaging must-follow on Twitter) lives and dies with his team and has invested in both revamping urban Providence Park for soccer (with some public support) and building a $10 million training facility in town.

The organization has treated its hardcore fans well and made the right moves to increase public demand, capping season tickets at 15,300 (No. 3 in MLS) with a gargantuan wait-list of more than 9,000 (No. 1 in the league). Every MLS home game has been a sellout, at 54 and counting. On the development side, Portland runs the state of Oregon’s ODP program, has five regional training centers and has authored a 95-page “Sporting Performance Plan” that details club philosophy, objective, principles of play (style and system) and team culture that is meant to guide all soccer department decisions. As with Kansas City under Peter Vermes, Portland’s success on the field under Caleb Porter last season is a case study in how to win despite being a small-market team.

6. NEW YORK RED BULLS (5 in 2013; 3 in 2012)RedBullsLogo

It’s a little unfair for New York to fall a spot after winning last year’s Supporters' Shield, but that’s due more to teams like Toronto and Portland standing out than anything else. After using its own money to build a beautiful $200 million stadium, the Red Bulls still don’t fill it despite the on-field success and the spending on DPs Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

That said, the Red Bulls invested in a “multi-million” dollar (their phrase) training facility that opened last June, and their youth academy is one of the better regarded ones in the league. Not filling its third DP spot after Rafa Márquez’s departure is somewhat surprising, but look for it to happen as soon as this summer. With NYCFC starting play next year, the Red Bulls need to work their own magic in the Gotham arms race.

SI VAULT: 2012 Ambition Rankings | 2013 Ambition Rankings 

BBVA Compass Stadium The Houston Dynamo's BBVA Compass Stadium is in an ideal downtown location. (Cal Sport Media)

7. HOUSTON DYNAMO (6 in 2013; 9 in 2012)DynamoLogo

In some ways, the Ambition Rankings are a referendum on MLS teams’ ownership. But Houston has found a way to stay near the top despite a split-ownership situation that isn’t ideal (AEG, Oscar de la Hoya and Gabriel Brener). Part of the credit should go to team president of business operations Chris Canetti, who has made sure Houston is a profitable organization while giving veteran coach Dom Kinnear what he needs to succeed on the field.

The Dynamo built a $95 million stadium in a dynamite urban location, signed a local TV rights deal worth $1.25 million a year, became the second MLS team to start an NWSL team (the Dash) and the first to hold a testimonial game for charity when it honored Brian Ching last year (raising $125,000). Houston doesn’t blow you away with big-money signings — though it does now have two DPs in Hondurans Oscar Boniek García and Alexander López — but it’s just a solid organization.

8. REAL SALT LAKE (4 in 2013; 7 in 2012)RSLLogo

RSL made itself one of the league’s on-field flagships thanks to a terrific player group assembled by ex-coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey. But owner Dell Loy Hansen (who replaced Dave Checketts in January 2013) made a big mistake by taking Kreis for granted, and the coach left for NYCFC when his contract expired. From an ambition perspective, that’s not a good sign. Will the in-demand Lagerwey (also in a contract year) be next?

Almost all the players are back, though, and RSL has good facilities in Rio Tinto Stadium and its three-year-old training field built at a cost of $1 million. Season tickets have also surpassed 10,500 (No. 8 in the league) for the first time in team history. The club says it has spent around $2 million on youth development in the last five years, a decent but not great number in relative terms in MLS.

9. PHILADELPHIA UNION (14 in 2013; 8 in 2012)UnionLogo

The Union’s plunge downward in last year’s Ambition Rankings may just be a blip: Philadelphia opened up the checkbook in the offseason to sign DPs Maurice Edu and Christian Maidana and even made an early play for Michael Bradley. The five-year-old Union also has a gorgeous riverside stadium in PPL Park and a healthy $8 million in sponsorship income this season.

But the most impressive aspect of Philly’s ambition is its youth initiative, “the significant commitment we are making to developing a world-class youth academy,” as the club puts it. The club spent $1.6 million on development in 2013 as it moved to a full-time academy (free of charge to participants) and expects to spend $2 million annually going forward. One less-impressive situation: The first team still doesn’t have a permanent training facility, though it says those training fields should open later this year.

10. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (12 in 2013; 17 in 2012)SJLogo

The Earthquakes’ rise is pretty simple: San Jose owner Lew Wolff is 100 percent privately financing the team’s new stadium, which will cost between $70 million and $100 million and open in 2015.

San Jose also rebranded this season, and while coach Mark Watson isn’t the sexiest hire, team president Dave Kaval is an impressive, forward-thinking executive. There’s not much else to say from an ambition perspective until this team is settled into its new digs next year.

11. CHICAGO FIRE (13 in 2013, 11 in 2012)FireLogo

Wind-blown Toyota Park in grim Bridgeview, Ill., has been an OK (but not great) situation for the Fire, which trains on a field next to the stadium. But Chicago has been active on the investment front, building the $20 million, 140,000-square-foot Chicago Fire Soccer Center, a training facility that will open this year downtown. New soccer boss Frank Yallop chose Chicago over Vancouver — one reason the Fire is above the Whitecaps here — and has been given the money to hire a technical staff that includes a team nutritionist and data analyst.

What’s more, Chicago makes a seven-figure annual investment in its youth academy, which is well-regarded. Owner Andrew Hauptman says very little publicly (he’s not Paulson nor Heineman) and cleaned house at the end of last season, but he made an encouraging choice tapping Yallop.

12. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (8 in 2013; 10 in 2012)WhitecapsLogo

This was a tough offseason for the Whitecaps, who got turned down by Bob Bradley, Frank Yallop and Jason Kreis before settling on in-house coaching candidate Carl Robinson (who’s nevertheless off to a good early start on the field). That's to say nothing of the confusing player sagas involving Camilo and Andre Lewis.

The club’s leadership-by-committee seems confusing at times and having a soccer-specific stadium would be preferable to B.C. Place, but there’s a lot to like about what Vancouver is doing. The 13,000 season-ticket holders are fifth in MLS (behind only Seattle, Toronto, Portland and Kansas City), and the team has a fully-funded, full-time youth residency program for boys and girls, as well as six regional academy centers.

The seven-year-old residency program is a big reason Vancouver has six Homegrown players on its current roster, including rising star Russell Teibert. The team is also building a $29 million national soccer development center at the University of British Columbia in partnership with UBC and the provincial government.

SI VAULT: 2012 Ambition Rankings | 2013 Ambition Rankings 

Anthony Precourt, Gregg Berhalter New owner Anthony Precourt, left, and new manager Gregg Berhalter, center, have ushered in a new era for the Columbus Crew. (Greg Bartram/USA Today Sports)

13. COLUMBUS CREW (16 in 2013; 15 in 2012)CrewLogo

New owner Anthony Precourt seems to get it. He’s passionate about the Crew — which he says will get a welcome new logo in 2015 — and he embarked on a long interview process before giving Gregg Berhalter the keys to the soccer castle in Columbus. Those things alone are enough reason for Columbus to make a modest jump in the Rankings this year.

Precourt has also renovated the Crew’s training facility (which was the league’s first) in suburban Obetz and has made some cosmetic changes to venerable Crew Stadium. Columbus has done well in youth development, with seven Homegrown players currently on the first-team roster (led by Wil Trapp). In fact, Columbus might be a bit higher here if the Crew hadn’t antagonized its own fans with a recent local TV deal with Time Warner Cable. (It’s never good to ask your fans to switch their cable provider just so they can see your games.)

14. MONTREAL IMPACT (11 in 2013; 12 in 2012)ImpactLogo

We’re still trying to figure out what to make of Montreal owner Joey Saputo. Yes, he’s rabid about his team, and that’s usually a good sign for ambition. But he runs through coaches like empty soda cans: Frank Klopas, let go by Chicago, is Montreal’s third coach in as many years in MLS. Stade Saputo is a nice setting for games, and the team did build a turf training field next to the stadium last year.

The team invests around $1 million a year in youth development and is introducing a pre-academy that goes down to U-8. But Montreal doesn’t yet have its own training facility, and, according to SI.com’s survey, it’s the only team in MLS that doesn’t have daily training-table meals for its players.

15. FC DALLAS (17 in 2013; 13 in 2012)FCDLogo

How big is Dallas on young players? Well, consider the club has filled its three DP slots, but all of them are young DPs (Mauro Díaz, Andrés Escobar, David Texeira). FCD hopped above Colorado in large part due to poaching coach Óscar Pareja from the Rapids. Now that Columbus has been sold, brothers Clark and Dan Hunt can focus on one MLS team, which is a good thing, and they want to develop players all the way from age 7 to the senior team. No fewer than seven Homegrown players have already appeared in games for the first team, and sponsorship income has grown due to a stadium-naming deal with Toyota last year.

Still, there needs to be more buzz in the Dallas area about this team, which doesn’t have a “major league” feel to it quite yet. There’s a reason why Dallas was one of five MLS clubs that refused to release season-ticket figures to SI.com (along with New York, New England, Chivas USA and D.C. United).

16. COLORADO RAPIDS (15 in 2013; 16 in 2012)RapidsLogo

Rapids owner Stan Kroenke basically stays out of the picture, but team president Tim Hinchey has made gains over the last two years, increasing season tickets to a less-embarrassing 5,000-plus this year and raising sponsorship by 15 percent in 2014. Colorado signed its first DP last year (Gabriel Torres), has beefed up its support staff and has signed three Homegrown players, including the highly promising Shane O’Neill. One example of better days: The team-owned local TV broadcasts, which used to be awful (“So the red card’s an ejection, correct?”), are now quite good thanks to the addition of broadcaster Richard Fleming.

And yet: Despite the gains from a very low baseline, Colorado still has a long way to go to compete ambition-wise with other MLS teams, and the lack of preparation on how to deal with Óscar Pareja’s departure was worrisome.

17. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (18 in 2013; 19 in 2012)RevsLogo

MLS has upgraded so much on the soccer stadium front in the last 10 years that the few teams without their own real soccer home stand out in a bad way. Give the Revolution credit for realizing how important it is to get one built in Boston, not Foxboro. “We could have built something more inexpensive and less central, but we are allocating a much more extensive level of resource investment in order to get an urban stadium built,” the club tells SI.com. “Our ambition is … to have a soccer stadium that will permanently transform the game in our region for generations.”

That’s great if the Kraft family can back it up. The club has definitely made gains on the field under Jay Heaps (with a young, entertaining team) a youth development initiative that has produced Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell. The Revs have to become a major player on the New England sports scene, however.

18. D.C. UNITED (9 in 2013; 14 in 2012)DCU_Primary_COL

What on earth has happened to MLS’s once-proud team in the nation’s capital? It’s not just about what’s happening on the field, where United won a league-record-low three MLS games last year. Under managing partners Erick Thohir and Jason Levien, United has gutted the team’s staff in what seems like an effort to starve the beast. Stadium possibilities that appeared bright last year have dimmed, and Thohir and Levien haven’t spoken to the media in months to provide a window into their thinking.

In fact, Thohir seems far more interested in spending on and talking about his Inter Milan team than on addressing the chalk outline of D.C. United. These days United even has a hard time getting its games on local TV. Two saving graces: The club did improve its roster in the offseason, signing Eddie Johnson to a DP contract, and D.C. has developed some good local players over the years, including Bill Hamid and Andy Najar (the first Homegrown Player to be permanently transferred abroad).

19. CHIVAS USA (19 in 2013; 18 in 2012)ChivasLogo

Under previous owners Jorge Vergara and Angélica Fuentes, the Goats had become such a blight on MLS that the league owners finally had enough and bought back the team recently for what the league says was $70 million. That’s actually great news for the future of the team, which will be rebranded under a new name and sold to an owner with a stadium plan in Los Angeles.

Competent executive Nelson Rodríguez is now in place as team president, and the team (with DPs Mauro Rosales, Erick Torres and Oswaldo Minda) is off to a decent start. But let’s not move Chivas USA up the Rankings quite yet. It’s still a team without an owner, without its own stadium, without a local TV deal and without any sizable fan base to speak of. It’s as though Vergara was trying to sabotage his own team.

SI VAULT: 2012 Ambition Rankings | 2013 Ambition Rankings 
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