The 2016 MLS season is upon us this Sunday, and so it’s an ideal time to come out with my MLS Ambition Rankings. MLS is certainly an ambitious league, with commissioner Don Garber saying he wants it to be one of the world’s top soccer leagues by 2022.
But some MLS clubs are more ambitious than others—as you’ll see here.
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? Does the atmosphere at your games feel major league? Do you create real buzz? How much do you pony up for top-flight training facilities, youth development academies and your own USL teams?
How well does your team back up what it says it’ll do? Does your club have an identity? 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 20 MLS teams (plus 2017 expansion team Atlanta United FC) asking them about their investments and ambitions for their clubs.
(You can read more detailed results of that questionnaire here–Behind the Ambition Rankings. For your specific team's info, click on the team name below.)
Without further ado, the 2016 MLS Ambition Rankings:
1. LA Galaxy
The only five-time MLS Cup champion rises back to the top of this list for a few reasons. Not only do the Galaxy invest big in Designated Players (Robbie Keane, Giovani Dos Santos, Steven Gerrard), but they also say they have sunk over $12 million in youth development over the past five years and a whopping $4 million in the past year alone. LA leads MLS in local TV revenue ($5.5 million) and club and stadium revenue sponsorship, with $22 million in sponsorship money in 2016. Add in more than $15 million spent on facility upgrades in the past two years, the first MLS-owned USL team (LA Galaxy II) and a clear identity fashioned largely by Bruce Arena, Chris Klein and AEG’s Dan Beckerman, and you have the gold standard in MLS.
2. Toronto FC
No team in MLS spends more money than TFC on its Designated Players (Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore). Facility development includes a major expansion of BMO Field and construction of the $17 million Kia Training Ground & Academy. Clearly, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is willing to spend money, though the performance on the field has yet to back up that investment. If we’re splitting hairs between Toronto and the Galaxy, TFC’s commitment to youth development isn’t as high, and the loss of Tim Leiweke (to David Beckham’s Miami expansion group) takes away the league’s most ambitious figure of the past 15 years.
3. Seattle Sounders
The biggest crowds in MLS (average 2015 attendance: 44,247) make Seattle feel not just “major league” but world-class, and the Sounders have the pressure to win to match. The club infrastructure has increased in size to more than 100 full-time employees since the club decoupled from the NFL Seahawks in 2014 and added a USL team last season, and the move of locally-based Adrian Hanauer to majority owner is a good sign as well. If you’re going to dock Seattle points, it would be for its continued use of artificial turf. Even with the installation of a new carpet for 2016, the club has given too much power to the Seahawks when it comes to the quality of the playing surface.
4. Sporting Kansas City
K.C. is still the most incredible turn-around in MLS history when it comes to a city going from a soccer ghost town to a thriving fútbol mecca where the thing to do on Saturday nights is go to an SKC game. Sporting doesn’t invest in DPs like the league’s big spenders, but it has fashioned a top-shelf identity and stuck to it. The world’s nicest 20,000-seat soccer stadium is a big part of that, but so is the club infrastructure, which includes the new USL team Swope Park Rangers. The team has spent a total of $22 million on a first-rate training complex, and an emphasis on local-born players (Matt Besler, Seth Sinovic) and homegrowns has yielded dividends.
5. Portland Timbers
The reigning MLS Cup champions have the most raucous atmosphere in the league and an insane Green Bay Packers-like demand in the Rose City: Season tickets are capped at 15,800 with a waiting list of more than 12,000. The Timbers have invested more than $7 million in a shiny training facility and are one of three MLS teams to own an NWSL outfit (the Thorns), even if there hasn’t been much relative success in youth development to this point. With 104 full-time employees, though, up 20 from last year, this is a team with deep local roots and a star on the jersey now to back up the investment. Granted, artificial turf is a negative, but the hope remains that a grass surface is on the way soon.
6. Orlando City SC
Orlando City had the second-highest average attendance in MLS (32,847) during its debut season last year, which was an unqualified success in terms of driving soccer interest in Central Florida. Season tickets are up 4,000 to 18,000, and a gorgeous new stadium is set to be finished by the end of the year. The club is starting an NWSL team, the Pride, with Alex Morgan, and has announced plans to build a new training center at Lake Nona. OCSC also dug deep in its pockets to sign the league’s highest-paid player, Kaká, and is launching its own USL team. If the club can continue this momentum, it will rise in the rankings as projects are completed and the on-field product improves.
7. New York City FC
During its debut season in 2015, NYCFC had the third-highest attendance in MLS (29,016) and splashed the cash, signing Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard and David Villa—to say nothing of new manager Patrick Vieira. This club is a known quantity in the busy NYC sports landscape, which is no small feat, and its $100 million expansion fee shows that it means business in the Big Apple. Then again, it hasn’t built its own training facility yet, and progress on a stadium project has been much slower than expected. While the team drew fans to Yankee Stadium last season, playing on a converted baseball field is a bit of a mess.
8. Vancouver Whitecaps
The Whitecaps have somewhat quietly built an impressive infrastructure, including a fully-funded residential player development program that goes all the way back to 2007 and a USL team that started last season. Six homegrown players, led by Russell Teibert, are on the 2016 roster, and the club has partnered with the British Columbia government and the University of British Columbia to construct a state-of-the-art $24.4 million facility that serves as a training center for the Whitecaps, UBC and Canadian national teams. Season tickets have increased to 15,500 this season, but would it be nice if the Whitecaps had their own soccer-specific stadium and a grass field? Yes, yes it would.
9. New York Red Bulls
Once the league’s biggest spenders, the Red Bulls completely changed their identity in 2015, adopting one of MLS’s lowest payrolls and making it work—through Jesse Marsch’s high-pressing style—to win the Supporters Shield. And while NYCFC has far more buzz in New York City, RBNY swept its rivals on the field and started seeing its own increase in attendance. The Red Bulls youth academy is one of the most respected in MLS, and sporting director Ali Curtis has outlined a clear vision for what he wants the club to be. The question remains, though: For an MLS team to get noticed in NYC, can it really afford not to invest significantly in Designated Players?
10. FC Dallas
This is a club that’s moving in the right direction under coach Óscar Pareja, and one reason is it has chosen an identity—youth-youth youth—and stuck with it. Dallas went to the Western Conference final last year by playing its kids to the tune of 20% of minutes going to homegrown players (which led the league for the second straight year). Alone among its cohort of suburban stadium builders (with Chicago and Colorado), the stadium in Frisco has started to gain a real following. Does Dallas quite feel “major league” yet in its atmosphere? Not really, but you get the sense that eventually it could happen.
11. Columbus Crew SC
Coach Gregg Berhalter has the Crew performing on the field, where it reached the 2015 MLS Cup final. Meanwhile, owner Anthony Precourt has given Berhalter more tools to achieve his vision, including doubling the (fully-funded) academy budget in the past year and adding plenty to the technical staff in the form of data and video analysts and full-time academy head coaches. The atmosphere at MAPFRE Stadium still doesn’t totally feel “major league,” but the Crew is treating its fans better these days. Witness the new local TV deal that allows more fans to see the team play.
12. Montreal Impact
Since the last time we did these rankings, vocal owner Joey Saputo has invested $12 million in a new training facility for the Impact’s first team and all youth teams, and he’s putting another $1.5 million a year into youth development. Signing Didier Drogba as a Designated Player was also a statement of intent. Saputo went all out last year to give his team the best chances to prepare for the CONCACAF Champions League final in Mexico, and the Impact nearly made it happen. That said, there’s still a feeling of “not quite there” about this club, and it’s hard to build an identity when you’re changing head coaches all the time.
13. Houston Dynamo
he Dynamo has a terrific location for its stadium next to downtown Houston, though it should be noted that it’s rarely filled to capacity even if the announced crowd indicates as much. As a result, it’s not quite a “major league” atmosphere. Houston has launched a new hybrid USL affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Toros, in which the soccer side is controlled by the Dynamo and the business side is controlled by RGV FC. Team president Chris Canetti is respected in the league, and it remains to be seen what the impact will be of Gabriel Brener taking over full ownership as AEG has left the scene. Erick (Cubo) Torres should have been a big DP signing, but he has yet to pan out.
14. San Jose Earthquakes
The Earthquakes debuted their fine new Avaya Stadium last year, and the club is in the opening stages of a $37 million proposal for a 44-acre academy headquarters in downtown San Jose. Maybe it’s a sign of MLS’s growth that San Jose can do those things and still be pretty far down the Ambition Rankings list. The team’s $1 million training facility (built in 2010) is pretty sparse, and while the 66-member front office has grown by 10% this year, it’s still pretty small compared to the rest of the league. And signing Simon Dawkins as a Designated Player? That one won’t exactly move the needle.
15. Chicago Fire
If these rankings had taken place before GM Nelson Rodríguez was hired, the Fire would have been a few places lower. But Rodríguez has energized a team that had really stagnated the last few years and is nowhere near the proud franchise that won trophies regularly in its early years. When he was hired, Rodríguez announced that he wanted Chicago to be the first MLS team to 10 titles, which is a bold statement. And he has his own ideas about development: Rodríguez told SI that he’d prefer not to own a USL team and focus instead on development at much younger ages. The Fire says it spends $1.25 million a year on a fully-funded academy housing seven teams starting at U-10. Chicago constructed a $20 million urban facility that serves as an occasional training site and a link to the community. But the situation at Toyota Park, where the atmosphere is not major league, is not good at all. If the Fire didn’t have an onerous lease with the city of Bridgeview, the club would probably move downtown.
Here’s another club that, like Chicago, had fallen below this level before making a recent hire (sporting director Earnie Stewart) and rising a few spots in recent months. Like Dallas, Philadelphia has put a big emphasis on youth development, spending more than $7 million over the past five years and $2.2 million annually moving forward on its residential academy. A new $14 million training center is being finished next to Talen Energy Stadium, and the team’s USL outfit, Bethlehem Steel, is now online as well. Is the Union spending big on DPs? Not really. But the building blocks are there to rise in this survey in the coming years.
17. Real Salt Lake
This is a weird one, too. Salt Lake expects to have more than 15,000 season-ticket holders again, which is quite good, and the atmosphere at Rio Tinto Stadium is still in the top half of the league. The club launched a USL team last year and is making plans for a $40 million training facility for RSL, the Monarchs and its Utah-based U-18 and U-16 teams. All good. And yet the vibe around Salt Lake, to say nothing of the team’s performance, has declined considerably in recent years under the ownership of Dell Loy Hansen. The braintrust that led RSL to the top of MLS—Jason Kreis, Garth Lagerwey, Bill Manning—were all pushed out by Hansen, and the reputation of the club has suffered.
18. Colorado Rapids
It’s hard to know what the Rapids’ identity is, at least ever since Óscar Pareja left as the coach. Colorado took a chance on Pablo Mastroeni, and it hasn’t panned out yet. You could say the same for Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a nice soccer-specific stadium that just doesn’t feel big-time in terms of atmosphere with 6,000 season tickets sold. The Rapids pursued any number of big to big-ish names in the off-season, including Carlos Vela and Alan Pulido, but neither wanted to sign. Would the reported acquisition of Tim Howard bring some buzz to this team? Sure, but you wonder if it’s the right move in soccer terms.
19. D.C. United
Oh, D.C. United. At least that urban stadium is on the way, right? It should be a big positive for a club that needs it, and yet you’re never totally certain it’s going to happen until you see the thing being built. It’s tough enough that the stadium plans have been downsized continually since it was approved. Majority owner Erick Thohir would rather spend his time with his Inter Milan outfit and doesn’t seem to care about his MLS team. The team still trains on a practice field near RFK Stadium that doesn’t rival most of the league’s training facilities. You wish that this venerable club would enter the 21st century, but it hasn’t yet.
20. New England Revolution
In soccer terms, the Revolution have been relevant again in recent years, and that’s a credit to Mike Burns and Jay Heaps and a youth development operation that has produced Diego Fagundez and Scott Caldwell. But this bottom-feeder ranking has to do with essentially one thing: No real progress on an urban stadium that this team desperately needs. At least D.C. United got the stadium approved. The Revolution? Who knows how long it will take? I know that owner Jonathan Kraft cares about his team, but it’s time to get some results on a stadium. These fans deserve it.