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  • As MLS continues to grow and evolve, so do the number of ways that clubs can define and look to reach their ambitions. After conducting our annual survey, here's how the league stacks up, from the strivers to those with work to do to catch the pack that is pulling away.
By Brian Straus and Grant Wahl
April 23, 2018

With each passing season, the potential rises and the boundaries are stretched.

We’ve see it recently on the field, where Toronto FC became the first MLS club to eliminate two Mexican foes during a single Concacaf Champions League campaign. And we see it off the field. Look to D.C. United and Los Angeles FC, which are building stadiums in the heart of two of the USA’s biggest markets. Or behold Atlanta United, which broke the domestic transfer record with its $15 million acquisition of an Argentine teenager.

The leeway clubs now have to operate within MLS’s limits (even if some are self-imposed) is expanding. There are myriad ways in which an organization can progress or differentiate itself. It could be through investment in Designated Players, youth development, scouting and analytics, or facilities—or by prioritizing a specific roster-building strategy or style of play. The permutations and possibilities are increasing, and so the number of acceptable excuses has diminished.

MLS still isn’t a league where the ability to contend consistently for trophies is dependent only on spending. But the options and opportunities now available—not to mention the standards and expectations established by more ambitious owners—make it easier to identify the teams that intend to lead and those content to follow. Becoming everything an MLS club can be is more of a conscious decision than ever, and it requires significant commitment—financial and otherwise.

So there’s never been a better time to unveil another installment of SI’s annual MLS Ambition Ranking. Once again, we sent a survey to each team asking for details about their spending habits, decisions, goals and priorities. This year, we added a couple questions concerning competition. Ultimately, success is determined on the field, and a club’s commitment to competing on all fronts—MLS, U.S. Open Cup/Canadian Championship, and CCL—might say as much about its ambition as its salary structure or marketing budget.

And with that, here’s the seventh annual MLS Ambition Ranking (for more detailed information on the numbers behind the ranking, you can access each club's survey answers here, with teams separated by conference: Eastern Conference | Western Conference):

1. Atlanta United (Last year: 2)

In 2017, Atlanta ranked second based largely on potential, promise and the hiring of manager Tata Martino. This season, it takes the top spot thanks to near-flawless execution and a clear commitment to pushing the MLS envelope. There doesn’t appear anything owner Arthur Blank won’t do to make his team the league’s standard bearer. Since the release of last year’s ranking, Atlanta set attendance records at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, opened a $60 million training facility, launched a USL team, won the U16 Development Academy championship, and signed the aforementioned $15 million man, Ezequiel Barco. Atlanta will host the MLS All-Star game this summer against Juventus and this fall, will be expected to make a run at an MLS Cup title in only its second season.

2. Toronto FC (Last year: 1)

TFC didn’t fall as much as Atlanta rose. But there’s little separating the two and in winning the first domestic treble and then ousting Tigres UANL and Club America on its way to the CCL finals, Toronto has demonstrated what’s possible with a commitment to investment and stability at all levels. The emphasis put on the CCL, which included using available TAM funds on the likes of Gregory van der Wiel and Ager Aketxe and spending extra time in Mexico ahead of the quarterfinal and semifinal deciders, will be the MLS model going forward. DP spending is static, but that’s because Toronto chose wisely. TFC is a case study in what’s achievable when ambition marries intelligence. GM Tim Bezbatchenko, coach Greg Vanney and captain Michael Bradley may not possess the glamour of their Atlanta counterparts, but they’ve got the silverware.

3. Los Angeles FC (Last year: N/A)

LAFC’s entry already has been remarkable. Considering the obstacles clubs in other top 10 markets have encountered trying to build new homes, the fact that Banc of California Stadium is set to open this weekend in such an iconic part of Los Angeles is an MLS miracle. The $350 million, privately-funded facility is the crown jewel of a project that already includes a $30 million training facility, the appointment of coach Bob Bradley and the signing of Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Some have wondered whether the five-time champion LA Galaxy would have to fight to stay relevant. That’s a sign of real ambition at LAFC. The only things missing are a track record and trophies (and perhaps some build-out on the USL and academy side), and the only place LAFC appeared to cut corners was the uniform. Everything else stands out.

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4. LA Galaxy (Last year: 4)

About that bit concerning the Galaxy’s fight to stay relevant: A last-place finish will raise those questions. And LA answered a bunch of them with the blockbuster signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He may not be a DP, but ambition isn’t just about the price tag. And it’s the Galaxy, not LAFC, that’s been the talk of the league as a result. Meanwhile, the club’s DP spending rose by more than $5 million over the past year to around $17.3 million. The Galaxy are trying, as evidenced by those singings, as well as by the $4.2 million invested in 2017 in youth development and the $20 million put toward StubHub Center upgrades.

5. Seattle Sounders (Last year: 3)

There haven’t been many significant upgrades over the past 12 months in Seattle. Remaining somewhat static may result in a slight slip in the Ambition Ranking. But the Sounders still do enough to be one of the league’s elite clubs, and they’re a two-time conference champion with six major titles in nine MLS seasons. They set the standard for expansion teams back in 2009, and now must respond to the escalation that’s happened since. To that end, the club said it more than doubled its investment in player development since 2016. It’s exploring an expansion of its Starfire training complex in suburban Tukwila, and has partnered with the Tacoma Rainiers AAA baseball team to build a new facility for its USL side. Offseason reinforcements were modest and injuries, fatigue and poor form doomed the Sounders’ CCL campaign.

6. Portland Timbers (Last year: 5)

The Timbers are a small-market club with a big-market following and mindset, and they continue to impress pound-for-pound. Among DPs earning under $3 million annually, it’s tough to find a better one than reigning MLS MVP Diego Valeri, and Portland’s commitment to investing throughout the club is notable—from the $4 million in annual red ink related to its USL and youth development programs to the remarkable success of the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, who win championships and attract record crowds. The club didn’t break the bank to replace departed coach Caleb Porter, but very few didn’t believe Gio Savarese had earned his chance. Instead, the Timbers are spending some $60 million on the expansion of Providence Park, which will include more than 4,000 new seats, and another $5 million on upgrades to its training facility.

7. Real Salt Lake (Last year: 12)

RSL takes a big jump in the Ambition Ranking thanks to its massive investment in a $78 million training facility in Herriman, Utah, the club’s outstanding youth development and the launch of a NWSL team, Utah Royals FC. RSL is an example of how ambition can be defined by different organizations in different ways. There may be no big-ticket, big-name stars joining the first team. But top-to-bottom, it's as complete a club as there is anywhere in the USA or Canada. In addition to the Herriman facility, which includes a residence hall and a high school, RSL plans to open six regional training centers in Utah and Arizona for youth players ages 7-14. The first, a $6 million venture, opened in December in North Logan, Utah.

8. Sporting Kansas City (Last year: 6)

Peter Vermes continues to reload. Although SKC missed out on retaining homegrown defender Erik Palmer-Brown, who left for Manchester City and a subsequent loan deal with Belgium’s KV Kortrijk, the club says the signings of French midfielder Yohan Croizet and Chilean midfielder Felipe Gutiérrez have resulted in a record amount of DP spending. Like Portland, the big upgrade at SKC is about brick and mortar. The new $75 million Pinnacle training center, which also will house U.S. Soccer Federation programs and the Children's Mercy Sports Medicine Center, opened in February. Sporting values the U.S. Open Cup more than most and won its third title in six years in 2017. It hasn’t solved its late-season swoon issues, however, and has bowed out in the MLS Cup knockout round for four consecutive years.

9. New York City FC (Last year: 8)

Spending a bit less on DPs has been good policy in the long run, as the club that made a lot of noise with the inaugural-season signings of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard has been much better off with Villa and a team of better, more complementary players behind him. Blind ambition isn’t always the answer. Until NYCFC finds an escape route from Yankee Stadium, however, it’ll always be just behind the ranking’s top-tier clubs. But it’s doing a lot right in the meantime, from the investment in coach Patrick Vieira—who’s the league’s highest paid—to the state-of-the-art Orangeburg, New York, training facility it moved into last month. The Etihad City Football Academy sits on a 17-acre site and includes a 24,000-square-foot building and 1.5 grass fields.

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10. Orlando City (Last year: 7)

Kaká’s departure altered the face of the franchise and had a significant impact on the salary structure. Orlando’s DPs are now Dom Dwyer, Sacha Kljestan and Josué Colmán, who are decent players but cost a whole lot less. The club said it’s spending around $8.5 million in DP money and TAM this year. That’s far from miserly, but it’s a level down from the league’s top teams and helps lead to a three-spot drop in the Ranking. None of that will matter to City fans, of course, if their club can make the playoffs for the first time since joining MLS in 2015. Orlando City Stadium has been a big success, and although the club shut down its USL outfit this season, it deserves credit for its very good NWSL team, the Orlando Pride, which features Alex Morgan and Marta.

11. D.C. United (Last year: 18)

The biggest leap in this year’s ranking is made by MLS’s original flagship club, which has languished in recent years while losing loads of money at antiquated RFK Stadium. In July, DCU’s two-decade wait for a home of its own finally ends with the opening of Audi Field, a $400 million project that should transform both the club and the Buzzard Point area of the nation’s capital. United also is working toward establishing a new $50 million training facility and USL team in suburban Loudoun County, Virginia. All of this long-awaited infrastructure reportedly has attracted the interest of potential new owners, whose investment will be necessary to upgrade a squad that finished second-to-last in MLS in 2017. Paul Arriola currently is the team’s only DP, although two more may be on the way this summer. Among the potential targets is Italian striker Mario Balotelli.

12. FC Dallas (Last year: 9)

FCD’s youth development and “busca la forma” culture was considered the gold standard for some time. But it may have taken the club as far as it can go in 2016, when the run toward a potential treble was derailed by Mauro Díaz’s Achilles injury. Since then, Dallas has been searching for stability. DP spending is around $3.5 million this year—a little above the club average but still far from the league’s elite. New DP Santiago Mosquera, a Colombian midfielder, hasn’t yet found his MLS footing. Regardless of whether Oscar Pareja’s first team has hit its ceiling, the organization has made headway elsewhere. FCD said it’s spending around $58 million on upgrades to Toyota Stadium and the Toyota Soccer Center that’ll include a new National Soccer Hall of Fame, new locker rooms and more.

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Numbers Behind the MLS Ambition Rankings: Eastern Conference Clubs

13. New York Red Bulls (Last year: 10)

Red Bull Arena remains a fantastic place to watch a game, the club’s facilities are first-rate and the talent pipeline, which has produced a USL champion and newly-minted USA midfielder Tyler Adams, is among North America’s best. But it’s also the case that more star players seem to leave than sign, and that NYRB’s annual playoff faceplant is getting old (not that losing to TFC last year was anything to be ashamed of). As the years go by, it feels like the club is less appreciated in New York, and that New York is less appreciated at Red Bull HQ. NYRB rarely seems to be ambitious and competent at the same time. Among the positives are last year’s run to the U.S. Open Cup final and the club-record signing of Argentine midfielder Alejandro “Kaku” Romero Gamarra, who’s still integrating into coach Jesse Marsch’s side but may yet bring some sizzle back to Harrison.

14. Vancouver Whitecaps (Last year: 11)

It remains difficult to peg a club that after seven MLS seasons is still so inconsistent and unpredictable. Vancouver bounces up and down the standings—from third overall, to 16th and then eighth over the past three years—and in and out of the playoffs. There are signs of ambition and complacency, and the club seems to be a strange stew of both (for example, they’ve got a downtown stadium in a beautiful city, but it isn’t theirs). The Caps do invest. There’s been around $12 million in DP spending over the past three-plus seasons. The development and residency programs for both boys and girls are extensive (they’ve done a good job bringing along Alphonso Davies), and last year Vancouver opened a $32.5 million training facility featuring a 38,000-square-foot building and five fields. At the same time, Carl Robinson appears entrenched as he enters his fifth season as coach, despite a resume highlighted by a single knockout-round win. And Brek Shea and Kendall Waston are the club’s DPs.

15. Minnesota United (Last year: 21)

Minnesota’s MLS entry always was going to be complicated by the historically short runway it had to negotiate while transitioning quickly from the NASL. It made mistakes with its 2017 roster, clearly, but recognized most of them and wound up finishing the season ahead of three MLS originals (Colorado, D.C. and LA). This year, the Loons leap up the Ambition Ranking thanks to the signing of Colombian DP Darwin Quintero and progress on the construction of Allianz Field, the $200 million stadium located between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s scheduled to open in time for the 2019 season. Minnesota was the only club that declined to answer the Ambition Ranking survey.

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Numbers Behind the MLS Ambition Rankings: Western Conference Clubs

16. Chicago Fire (Last year: 14)

Owner Andrew Hauptman has taken a lot of heat from Fire fans over the years, and although its trophy drought now is MLS’s longest, much of what hampers the club is a stadium situation that existed when he bought the team in 2007. Until Chicago figures how to make Bridgeview work—or finds a way out—there’s only so much it can do. Meantime, it’s invested elsewhere. Hiring GM Nelson Rodriguez and coach Veljko Paunovic injected some stability and respectability. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic have been good signings, and the club’s DP spending jumped from a paltry $1.5 million in 2016 to a solid $12.1 million this year. And there’s room for one more DP. Chicago seems to be teetering on the verge of contention. If Hauptman wants to end the trophy drought, and bring more fans out to Bridgeview, he can’t stop now.

17. Montreal Impact (Last year: 17)

Owner Joey Saputo clearly wants to win. He’s hired five coaches in seven seasons, once signed Didier Drogba and recently rewarded the best player in team history, Ignacio Piatti, with a salary the Impact say is among the top five in MLS. But the whole often has been less than the sum of the club’s parts, as Montreal was unable to build on its stirring 2015 CCL run or the 2016 charge to the Eastern finals. The Impact last year spent $3.5 million on upgrades to Stade Saputo and has invested $6 million over the past three seasons on youth development, signing a handful of homegrown players while shuttering its USL team after 2016. The long-term plan remains unclear, however. Absent a third DP and the leadership of retired captain Patrice Bernier, new coach Rémi Garde has a challenge ahead.

18. San Jose Earthquakes (Last year: 13)

There’s quite a bit happening in San Jose, and it may be ambitious by the club’s standards. But it’ll take time before we know whether GM Jesse Fioranelli and coach Mikael Stahre are on the right path. Much of their plan seems designed to maximize the club’s Silicon Valley and European connections absent the financial largesse of bigger MLS clubs. The Quakes added unheralded DPs Vako Qazaishvili and Magnus Eriksson over the past year and have increased spending on youth development. USA junior national teamers Gilbert Fuentes and J.T. Marcinkowski are among recent homegrown signings. Fioranelli is a big believer in technology and on leveraging his foreign ties, and that’s resulted in several intriguing front office hirings, a commitment to machine learning and analytics and a potentially groundbreaking partnership with the Deutscher Fussball-Bund that’s still taking shape. Ultimately, their approach may prove innovative and successful. But it’s far too early to tell.

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19. Houston Dynamo (Last year: 20)

Houston sold Erick ‘Cubo’ Torres, who scored 14 goals last season, but deserve credit for finalizing the permanent transfer of winger Alberth Elis in December. Argentine playmaker Tomás Martínez is the club’s other DP. The Dynamo wouldn’t disclose financial figures, but said it's funding 10 youth teams. It also renovated the concourse, concession stands and some premium/hospitality seating at BBVA Compass Stadium. From a soccer perspective, the parts appear to be in place. The club owns the NWSL’s Houston Dash and helped pioneer the hybrid USL affiliate underpinning its partnership with the Rio Grande Valley Toros. The youth landscape is fertile. Despite that, there’s not much buzz around the Dynamo, which in 2017 posted its lowest announced average attendance since 2010. Considering the stadium’s central location and Houston’s size and demographics, the Dynamo should be a much bigger deal.

20. Philadelphia Union (Last year: 16)

It’s now season No. 3 under sporting director Earnie Stewart and No. 4 under coach Jim Curtin, but sustained and obvious progress remains elusive. And in a sports-mad city like Philadelphia, where the Eagles and Villanova are champions and “The Process” has begun to pay off, that’s not sufficient. Alejandro Bedoya, David Accam and Borek Dockal may be the three most expensive players in club history, but do they move the needle? There’s genuine progress elsewhere, from an innovative academy and high school program that’s starting to pay MLS dividends, to the upgrades to the offices, team space and training fields next to Talen Energy Stadium. It all matters. But real relevance depends on first-team success, and the Union have yet to win a playoff game in their eight-year existence.

21. Colorado Rapids (Last year: 15)

It still isn’t 100 percent clear that Stan Kroenke remembers that he’s got an MLS team in his vast sporting portfolio. Compared to the rest of his holdings, highlighted by the Los Angeles Rams and Arsenal, the Rapids continue to get short shrift. Signing Tim Howard certainly made headlines, and the 2016 season was a great one. But if you’re going to break the bank on only one player, spending $2.5 million on a goalkeeper may not be the smartest sort of ambition. Last year was a nightmare, and the Rapids inability to generate an attack highlighted the club’s conservative approach to spending and roster construction. The other DP, Shkëlzen Gashi, scored 12 goals in 2016-17. The team and new coach Anthony Hudson weren’t ready for CCL play in February, but they really shouldn’t have been in the competition. There’s too much work to do. The Rapids spend on youth development and said they upgraded player locker rooms and other facilities during the offseason. But until the Rapids are a priority at KSE, they’ll be far from the Ambition Ranking summit.

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22. New England Revolution (Last year: 22)

Speaking of wealthy owners who don’t spend much time or money on their MLS team, Robert and Jonathan Kraft continue to let their soccer stepchild run in place. The Krafts remain beloved inside American soccer’s ivory towers, but as the seasons go by—and as other MLS teams make progress—that reverence become tougher to justify. The Patriots got their own 767s last year. The Revs got Claude Dielna. The club continues to claim its working on a building a stadium, but the lack of progress is discouraging. A proposal centered on a site south of downtown Boston fell through last spring, and Providence recently has been raised as a possibility. Meanwhile, the Krafts have more than enough to finance a second juggernaut in Foxborough. They just choose not to.

23. Columbus Crew (Last year: 19)

Either Anthony Precourt didn’t have the means, skill or commitment to make the Crew successful in Columbus, or he willfully sandbagged the club in order to justify his desired exit. For the purposes of this ranking, it doesn’t matter—both are a long, long way from ambitious. Along with the players and coach Gregg Berhalter, who’ve been efficient and successful with limited resources, the fans who’ve rallied to save their team have demonstrated a lot more ambition than those in charge. They deserve better. But for Crew ownership, abandoning ship means you sink to the bottom.

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