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.
The Fire has made some big plays in recent years, building a new stadium and signing DPs like Cuauhtémoc Blanco. But the stadium site in Bridgeview has not been a good one -- there's little buzz around the Fire -- and owner Andrew Hauptman keeps a low profile. The team does appear to be rebounding from the depth of the Carlos de los Cobos era and finished last season well under new coach Frank Klopas. Better days are on the way?
It's hard to know where the Impact will fit in the Ambition Rankings until the team starts playing in MLS in 2012. But we do know that Stade Saputo (built in 2008) is being expanded to slightly more than 20,000 seats, and owner Joey Saputo isn't shy about attracting attention. The Impact also made a run at signing Nicolas Anelka as a DP, an effort that bodes well for building buzz in Quebec.
First, the good: the Hunt Sports Group built one of the first soccer-specific stadiums in Pizza Hut Park. FC Dallas has also improved on the field in recent years, and its youth development program has been one of the league's most successful. The team has also dipped its toe into the DP waters for David Ferreira and Fabián Castillo. Now the bad: The stadium was built way too far outside the city of Dallas, causing the team to have no major league buzz, and the Hunt family is clearly on the conservative side of MLS owners.
The most successful franchise in the early years of MLS has struggled mightily to find a better stadium situation than it currently has at RFK, and the ongoing frustrations in the nation's capital have caused United to consider perhaps moving to Baltimore. Out-of-town owner Will Chang may or may not be committed for the long haul, and the club is trying to start over from scratch on the field under coach Ben Olsen. In other words, there's still a lot of uncertainty in D.C.; one bright spot from an ambition perspective is that Kevin Payne remains one of the league's more entertainingly public executives.
Crew Stadium will always deserve props for being MLS's first soccer stadium, but let's be honest: It looks downright cheap compared to Kansas City's Livestrong Sporting Park and Red Bull Arena. Columbus's owner, the Hunt Sports Group, doesn't want to spend much money on its coaching staff, and the Crew hasn't created much buzz since the departure of Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Give owner Stan Kroenke some credit for building a soccer stadium and for a surprise run to win the MLS Cup final in 2010. But that's about it. Kroenke is the definition of "absentee owner," and the Rapids are well known for being cheapskates, whether it's for paying their coach a pittance or refusing for years to get a massage therapist for the team. The Rapids create little buzz in Denver, and the players wonder if Kroenke is far more smitten with his other teams (including the St. Louis Rams and Arsenal) to care. Nor does it help that the team seems adrift after the departures of coach Gary Smith (just one year after winning MLS Cup) and managing director Jeff Plush.
The Earthquakes got some good news on Wednesday with the approval of a permit needed to start construction of a proposed $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium near the San Jose airport. Once that gets more serious, San Jose could rise in the Ambition Rankings, but the fact remains that this is a small-market team that (despite having prolific scorer Chris Wondolowski) doesn't feel major league.
Owner Jorge Vergara talked a lot of smack when his team started playing in MLS in 2005, but where has he been the last few years? And what does Chivas USA want to be these days? Robin Fraser appears to have been a smart hire as coach, but the club itself has done little to change the idea that it's "the other team" in L.A., one that's simply renting the Galaxy's stadium. Keep an eye, however, on the team's youth development efforts, which could prove fruitful down the road.
No fan base sends me more complaints about its own team ownership than New England's. The Revs play in an NFL stadium far from any city, and any hopes for an urban soccer stadium in Boston remain talk and little more. Spending some money to make Shalrie Joseph a DP has been the exception to the rule in New England. Winning seems terribly important to the Kraft family when it comes to the New England Patriots, but how much do the Krafts care about the Revolution?
So there you have it: the first edition of the MLS Ambition Rankings. Let's plan on making it an annual event.