2019 MLS Ambition Rankings: Who Is Keeping Up in League's Arms Race?

MLS has changed more in the past three years than it did in the previous 10 years before that, which makes SI.com’s annual MLS Ambition Rankings more relevant than ever, a measuring stick of who’s keeping pace in the arms race and who’s not.
By Grant Wahl ,

MLS has changed more in the past three years than it did in the previous 10 years before that, which makes SI.com’s annual MLS Ambition Rankings more relevant than ever, a measuring stick of who’s keeping pace in the arms race and who’s not.

And so we release our 2019 edition with a nod to the remarkable achievements of third-year Atlanta United and second-year LAFC, which have changed the paradigm of what MLS can be. At the same, we’re happy to call out the utter lack of ambition among the two ownership groups that happened to reach the most recent Super Bowl with their NFL teams: New England’s Kraft family and Colorado’s Stan Kroenke.

Ambition has a lot to do with what you’re willing to spend, but there’s more to it than that. How smart are you strategically? Do you do things to make your team feel “major league?" How have you invested in your player payroll, your youth development system and your infrastructure? Do you back up what you say you want to achieve?

Once again, we rank all the MLS teams from No. 1 to No. 24, in the eighth annual MLS Ambition Rankings (for more detailed information on the numbers behind the rankings, you can access each club's answers to our league-wide survey here, with teams separated by conference: Eastern Conference | Western Conference):

1. ATLANTA UNITED (Last year: 1)

With its 2018 MLS Cup title run, Atlanta and owner Arthur Blank showed they were the league’s gold standard for doing everything first-class and realizing the benefits of that ambition. Atlanta now owns all of the top 10 attended games in MLS history at $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It built a $60 million training facility, invested in a USL team and a promising academy, got a league-record $27 million transfer fee for Miguel Almirón and spent $14 million on South American Player of the Year Pity Martínez (after spending $15 million last year on Ezequiel Barco). New coach Frank De Boer has rebounded after a slow start, and while the jury is still out on his hire, the club has earned plenty of credit for what it has achieved in just two seasons. If every MLS owner were like Blank, MLS would be an entirely different league.

2. LAFC (Last year: 3)

It’s eerie how similar LAFC’s 2019 season is comparing to Atlanta’s title-winning 2018 campaign, but truth be told, LAFC’s ambition is essentially a carbon copy of Atlanta’s (with just a tiny bit less spending). LAFC has a gorgeous, privately-funded $350 million stadium, a $30 million new training facility and has spent around $15 million on transfer fees and another $15 million on this season’s roster. The owners have also been strategic in producing new revenue streams from live events and were named to Fast Company’s list of World’s Most Innovative Companies. If one of the owners, Mia Hamm, can get an NWSL team going, it’s possible for LAFC to catch Atlanta at No. 1.

3. LA GALAXY (Last year: 4)

The Galaxy missed the playoffs the last two years and responded by increasing their payroll from $17.3 million to $22.6 million, including signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a contract that’s closer to his market value. Part of the ambition game (especially in teams that have been around a while) is to back up your ambition with success, and that hasn’t happened as much with LA recently (see: Giovani Dos Santos). But the club says it has invested $18.3 million in its youth academy over the last three years, to say nothing of $20 million toward refurbishments of Dignity Health Sports Park. Whether LA can regain its past glories remains to be seen, but it took some cojones to swallow Gio’s multi-million-dollar guaranteed contract.

4. TORONTO FC (Last year: 2)

Don’t get me wrong: Toronto is still one of the most ambitious teams in MLS and says it’s spending more than $25 million this season on its player payroll. The club was willing to fork out an $11 million transfer fee for Alejandro Pozuelo, and it even added a new hybrid turf field for $2 million. But if you’re quibbling with what’s happening in Toronto, you’d note that GM Tim Bezbatchenko left for Columbus—yes, it’s where he’s from, but still—and that the club has had public friction with Sebastian Giovinco (who ended up leaving) and Jozy Altidore (who ended up extending his contract). Would today’s Toronto do what it did a few years ago to put itself among the greatest teams in league history again? I’m not entirely sure.

5. PORTLAND TIMBERS (Last year: 6)

Timbers fans will no doubt celebrate that they have passed archrival Seattle for the first time in the history of our Ambition Rankings, but there’s good reason for it, mostly due to what Portland has done, not what the Sounders have not. Not only did Portland set a club record with its $10 million transfer fee for forward Brian Fernández, but it just completed an $85 million renovation of Providence Park (the league’s most atmospheric venue) that increased the capacity by more than 4,000 to in excess of 25,000. Portland also put $5 million into new improvements to its training facility. This is a club that won’t ever have the resources of Atlanta or LAFC, but the ambition? It’s there.

6. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (Last year: 5)

The Sounders have set a high bar over the years, particularly in their attendance, but the arrivals of Atlanta and LAFC—and the slight decline in crowd sizes in Seattle—have put this club in the second tier ambition-wise. The club still has Designated Players ($7 million transfer Raúl Ruidíaz, Nicolás Lodeiro, Xavier Arreaga), and the vibe at games still feels major league, but the primary new investments in recent years have come on the youth development side, the baby of GM Garth Lagerwey. He has beefed up the player pipeline and the club’s USL side, and one of the results came in April when its U-17 team became the first MLS team to win the international Generation Adidas Cup in Dallas.

7. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (Last year: 8)

Sporting won’t ever compete to sign players like Ibrahimovic, but the club still landed DP Felipe Gutiérrez in 2018 for a team-record $1.65 million salary, and coach/sporting director Peter Vermes has been creative in building a competitive roster using TAM, GAM and DP money, including on the trades of Dom Dwyer and Ike Opara. Where SKC really shines ambition-wise is on the infrastructure side. That includes a new $75 million training facility (which also received funding from U.S. Soccer for a coaching and refereeing center), a new $20 million youth complex and a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its stadium.

8. D.C. UNITED (Last year: 11)

“The tipping point [for MLS] is here,” new D.C. owner Steve Kaplan told The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio last December. “We need to take this forward.” That’s certainly not something you would have expected to hear from a D.C. United owner a few years ago, but a lot has changed for the better in the nation’s capital. The new stadium, Audi Field, isn’t perfect, but the location is great and it’s a huge upgrade over RFK Stadium. Signing Wayne Rooney has been an unqualified success so far, and starting a new USL team in Loudoun County is another sign that one of the league’s long-dormant teams has finally awakened again. One glaring exception: D.C. remains one of just two MLS teams (Minnesota United is the other) whose youth academy charges an annual fee to its players.

9. REAL SALT LAKE (Last year: 7)

RSL didn’t bother to respond to our survey this year despite multiple requests, but the reasons for its overall rise in recent years remain the same: The investment in a $78 million training facility, a big commitment to youth development and the starting of an NWSL team, the Utah Royals, that is viewed as one of the most desirable teams to play on in U.S. women’s club soccer. (It’s revealing that MLS teams in Kansas City and New England turned down the chance to save NWSL teams in those markets.) There were plenty of questions about Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen when he bought the team, but the ones about his interest in spending on infrastructure no longer exist.

10. MINNESOTA UNITED (Last year: 15)

Minnesota’s rise in the rankings has a lot to do with the gorgeous new privately-funded $250 million Allianz Field, one of the gems of MLS. But there’s more to it than that. The Loons started upgrading their roster last year with the signing of DP Darwin Quintero, and they again capped their season-ticket holders at 14,500, which is a terrific sign. The team really does need to get a fully-funded youth academy, however.

11. COLUMBUS CREW (Last year: 23)

With by far the biggest rise in this year’s rankings, the Crew have been reborn … in Columbus. So much credit goes to the Save The Crew movement, which kept the team in Ohio when few people thought it would happen. But give plenty as well to the new ownership (led by the Haslam family), which has already announced plans for a $230 million urban stadium and a new training facility on the site of the current Mapfre Stadium. If they can get the stadium deal over the line, then the Crew will likely rise even higher next season. But as some of the recent home crowds show, there’s still lots of work to do to become the next Kansas City and completely reinvent an original MLS team.

12. FC CINCINNATI (Last year: N/A)

It’s a little hard to know where to put Cincinnati at this point. On the one hand, FCC’s new privately-funded $250 million, 26,000-seat urban stadium (set to debut in 2021) is going to be absolutely amazing, and also impressive is the team’s new $30 million training facility. Crowd sizes are likely to trail only Atlanta, Seattle and Toronto in MLS, and more than 20,000 season ticket holders is really impressive. The biggest question mark, though, is the ability of the team to execute well on all of its ambition. Some of the technical-side decisions in how Cincy built this season’s roster were absolute howlers, and the team is paying for it right now on the field.

13. NYCFC (Last year: 9)

NYCFC is hardly averse to spending money; it plunked down an $8.5 million transfer fee for Romanian Alexandru Mitrita in the offseason, and its new training facility outside New York City is another fantastic investment. But as has become the case with New England, NYCFC is being dragged down significantly by the lack of any progress on building a new soccer stadium in Gotham. Yankee Stadium is a terrible place for soccer, and there’s no indication that NYCFC will be playing anywhere else in the coming future.

14. NEW YORK RED BULLS (Last year: 13)

At the recent USWNT send-off game, the buzz of a nearly full Red Bull Arena was a big change from what we typically hear at a less-than-full stadium for RBNY games. The Red Bulls still don’t have much relevance in New York City, which is a shame. That said, the team has spent a bit more money in recent years on players like Kaku Gamarra and Bradley Wright-Phillips. The youth academy has been good in the past but seems like it has been coasting a bit more the last year or two, and the jury is out on whether the club will build a new training facility to replace the relatively new one it already has.

15. CHICAGO FIRE (Last year: 16)

Fire fans often have complaints with owner Andrew Hauptman, and a lot of them make sense. But it’s true that he’s willing to spend money; this year’s player payroll is $18.1 million. The big new story, though, is the club’s proposed deal to break its lease with the city of Bridgeview and finally get out of SeatGeek Stadium for around $65 million and move back to Soldier Field. Chicago is a sleeping giant in MLS, and moving back into Chicago from the sticks is paramount for the team to start regaining some relevance in the city. Maybe then it can finally get a decent training facility, too.

16. VANCOUVER WHITECAPS (Last year: 14)

If you’re running in place in MLS, circa 2019, you’re going to fall in the Ambition Rankings, and Vancouver feels like a club that’s running in place these days. The investment in youth development continues, which is good, and the choice to hire Marc Dos Santos as the new coach seems like a smart one. The player payroll is only around $11 million, though, and the failure to properly handle a case of bullying, harassment and sexually inappropriate behavior toward its women’s players in 2008 has cast a shadow over the club.

17. PHILADELPHIA UNION (Last year: 20)

There has been plenty of concern about owner Jay Sugarman’s interest in his team, and for good reason. But the signing of Marco Fabián (on a free transfer for a $2 million salary) was a move in the right direction, and the unexpected rise to first place in the Eastern Conference has been a positive for the club. Still, don’t get too excited yet. Philadelphia has done some innovative things with its player academy/school, which has produced some promising young players, but the atmosphere at games in Chester (oh, Chester), still doesn’t totally feel major league, especially in comparison with Philly’s other sports teams.

18. FC DALLAS (Last year: 12)

There are times when I turn to kickoff of a Dallas home game on TV and wonder if the club forgot to announce the start time to the public or is being punished by the authorities with a closed-door game. Whatever Dallas is doing to promote the team locally isn’t nearly enough. The ownership of the Hunt family has made a strategic decision to focus its spending on youth development, and it has been fun to watch head coach Luchi González (a former youth academy head) playing so many kids. But I’d like to see the club spend more on marquee players as well. The new on-site National Soccer Hall of Fame is definitely worth visiting, even though I don’t know if I would have put it in this location.

19. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES (Last year: 18)

This ranking would probably be lower if the Earthquakes hadn’t somehow convinced Matías Almeyda to take over as the new coach. That was a significant coup, and even if he got off to a bad start, things have rebounded in recent weeks on the field. Still, the Jesse Fioranelli era as GM has been a rocky one, the relatively new stadium has been a bit underwhelming, and the team has been unable to nail down a location to build a new training facility yet. There’s a lot that still needs to improve here.

20. ORLANDO CITY (Last year: 10)

If you stick around for enough years, part of being ambitious is the ability to back it up with some results. And clearly Orlando has been unable to do that part so far. Orlando ownership deserves credit for building a nice soccer stadium and signing Nani in the offseason, but there hasn’t been a coherent soccer strategy since Kaká left, and the players appeared to quit toward the end of a miserable campaign last season. Not surprisingly, what had been a thriving local soccer community has become more tepid in its support as the Lions have continued to miss the playoffs every season. Orlando City was the other club that did not respond to our league-wide survey despite multiple requests.

21. MONTREAL IMPACT (Last year: 17)

Last October, Montreal owner Joey Saputo came out publicly and said the Impact were losing more than $8 million a year, adding that the long-term viability of the club was a real concern. Saputo’s goal in going public appeared to be the hope of gaining some tax breaks from the local government. But it was also a sign that things aren’t rosy overall in Montreal these days. Saputo added the biggest losses came the year the Impact signed Didier Drogba, noting that he was unlikely to do something like that again as a result. Hence Montreal’s drop in the Ambition Rankings this year.

22. HOUSTON DYNAMO (Last year: 19)

It’s one of the mysteries of MLS: How could Houston build a good (not great) urban soccer stadium that always has a ton of empty seats? This should be a thriving MLS city, and it just isn’t. At all. Season tickets fell to around 8,000 this season, the club says, which is down from 2018. Principal owner Gabriel Brener doesn’t appear to want to spend much on player payroll, and it’s a credit to coach Wilmer Cabrera that he has gotten a good amount out of that team on the field. But Houston is a thriving international city, and there’s no excuse for this team not to be more relevant in it.

23. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION (Last year: 22)

Well, the Revs aren’t at the very bottom this year. That’s only because of two things: The new $35 million training facility and the decision to bring in Bruce Arena as the new coach and sporting director. But let’s not act like we’re giving the owners, the Kraft family, some sort of an award here. The continued inability to get an urban soccer stadium done—long-suffering fans have been waiting for years now—makes you wonder how serious they really are about doing it, especially when they already own the current NFL stadium in which the Revs play. But if the Krafts can’t find a way to do the stadium, they really should sell the team to someone who can.

24. COLORADO RAPIDS (Last year: 21)

You don’t have to work too hard speaking to people around MLS to hear a fairly common refrain that they wish Colorado owner Stan Kroenke would get out of the league. That’s … a problem. Earlier this season, Rapids coach Anthony Hudson said this: “We are fighting down at the bottom with a bottom group of players … If this was a promotion-and-relegation league, we’d have been relegated by now.” Hudson got fired a few days later, and you wondered if it was because of the losing or because he said something true that embarrassed the ownership. The Rapids have at least won four games since Hudson was let go and traded for U.S. national team winger Jonathan Lewis, but that doesn’t change the apathy emanating from Kroenke. There’s a reason they’re having a hard time finding a coach who wants them.

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