The 2017 MLS season is here, and with 22 teams (including expansion entrants Atlanta and Minnesota) the league is now bigger than most other significant top flights in the world. So it’s a perfect time to do my annual MLS Ambition Rankings, one man’s subjective opinion on which teams have ambition (and which don’t) in a salary-capped league.
You can measure that ambition in a lot of ways. Do you spend money on Designated Players? Have you built your own soccer stadium—and how nice is it? Does your club have an identity? How much has it invested in youth development, a training facility and technical staff?
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As I did last year, I sought to back up my rankings with more reporting by sending a questionnaire to all 22 MLS teams (plus 2018 expansion team LAFC) asking them about their investments and ambitions for their clubs. The responses are a treasure trove of granular information that MLS hardcores should love.
The highest-placed teams in our Ambition Rankings invest heavily across the board in star players, facilities and youth development, and no team in MLS does that quite like TFC. Toronto will devote more than $18 million this season to Designated Players Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. (The next closest DP spend, by NYCFC, is around $5 million less.) Toronto spent $108 million on a massive stadium refurbishment in 2015-16, and it has a nice $19 million training facility, along with an extensive investment in its youth academy. All that’s missing is an MLS Cup trophy, which might be on its way in 2017.
The expansion club sold more than 30,000 season tickets—second in the league behind Seattle’s reported 35,000—before their first game. Think about that. Atlanta United is not messing around. The club hired former Barcelona manager Tata Martino, the second-highest paid coach in MLS (behind NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira), and it signed three DPs under the age of 24 (Miguel Almirón, Josef Martínez and Héctor Villalba). The $60 million training facility that opens soon is the most expensive in MLS. And while we wish Mercedez-Benz Stadium, opening this summer, didn’t have artificial turf or an NFL team, it’s still a $1.5 billion (!) urban stadium that’s designed with soccer configurations in mind. The youth academy is also being done the right way, with a launch across five age groups more than a year before the club’s first MLS game.
A club that won its first MLS Cup title in 2016 and averaged 42,636 fans at home—second in USA/Mexico, 29th in the world and ahead of every team in Italy—has every right to aspire to be one of the top clubs on the planet. Seattle’s midseason signing of DP Nicolás Lodeiro was the biggest key to the title run, and how many other MLS teams would have had the cojones to do that? Seattle is investing heavily in its USL team and youth set-up, and separating from the Seahawks operations and going on its own in 2014 was the right thing to do for the future. As for the stadium, it’s a tremendous urban location and a terrific atmosphere, but it’s still an artificial turf field in an NFL stadium. In the end, ambition is about more than just spending, and the 2015 hiring of GM Garth Lagerwey—the Theo Epstein of American soccer—has already been a giant positive.
No, the sky is not falling in SoCal. Far from it, in fact. But there has been a bit of a retrenchment by the Galaxy in the past year. Salary spending on DPs has gone from $13.7 million in 2016 to $8.1 million in ’17, though the club does plan to add a DP this summer. Even before Bruce Arena left to coach the U.S. team, Dave Sarachan (the highest-paid assistant in MLS) had announced he was leaving. What some would call “cost-cutting” is being viewed as a move toward “strategic spending” by the Galaxy. And the team does still spend: $4 million in the past year on youth development, as well as another investment in newly-announced stadium renovations. Perhaps LA is gathering its breath for the challenge next year from LAFC, which says it has a whopping $350 million in private funding going toward its stadium and surroundings in South Los Angeles.
The most intense fan experience in MLS happens for a reason: The Timbers Army culture is insane in the best way, and Portland caps its season tickets at 15,800 and has a waitlist of more than 13,000 for a team that has sold out all 107 of its MLS home games. The Timbers have increased their youth development investment to $3 million a year, and only five teams in the league (Toronto, NYCFC, Atlanta, Seattle and LA) have spent more on players, including transfer fees, in the past year than Portland. A $10 million training facility and more than $60 million in stadium improvements are already done, and now there’s a proposal to spend $50 million more to expand the east side of Providence Park by 4,000 seats.
You’re basically splitting hairs between Kansas City, Portland and Orlando, but SKC remains unique for being an original MLS franchise that totally turned itself around with new ownership and a new stadium. We’re not fans of public funding for sports facilities, but Kansas City’s deal-making has been remarkable when it comes to building its $200 million stadium and the $80 million National Training and Coaching Development Center, opening this year, which combines public funding and money from the club and U.S. Soccer. Sellouts in 87 straight MLS games show how big SKC has become in town, and a strategy of youth investment and spending wisely on players has brought dividends to one of the most innovative ownership groups in MLS.
It isn’t just that Orlando City’s gorgeous new stadium cost $155 million, but also that it was constructed entirely from private funding. Meanwhile, the Lions are building their own training facility in Lake Nona, have sold 18,000 season tickets (with a waitlist) and are No. 7 in the league when it comes to player spending. Most of that spending is on one player, Kaká, and with the Brazilian superstar saying he’s done in Orlando after this year, it remains to be seen whether ownership will spend on players the same way post-Kaká. Either way, OCSC deserves a ton of credit for building a thriving fanbase in such a short time as it enters its third season in MLS.
NYCFC has the highest-paid coach in the league (Vieira), which is always one way to measure ambition. So, too, is spending on players, and the club is No. 2 in the league behind Toronto on that front (see: DPs David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Maxi Moralez). A new training facility will also require ownership to cut a big check, and NYCFC has done a terrific job making itself relevant in the crowded Gotham sports landscape in a way that the New York Red Bulls never quite have. All that said, NYCFC’s complete lack of progress on building its own stadium is becoming an embarrassment. Crowds have been good in Yankee Stadium, but any soccer person will tell you that the narrow field produces a bastardized version of the game.
FCD is a club that has been ambitious about its identity—a club that will build from within, give its youngsters chances to play and surround them with a talented group of veterans and sound coaching. And when you do as well as Dallas has done in fulfilling that strategy, you’re willing to allow for a team not spending as much money as others in the league. Yes, Dallas has spent more on DPs this season than in any previous one, but the number to follow here is 17. As in, FCD has signed 17 homegrown players, with 13 of them having played for the first team (and three more who haven’t that were signed this past offseason). Óscar Pareja is the ideal coach for this system, a manager who plays his kids and reaps the benefits unlike any other coach in the league. One can only hope that this club will someday start filling the stadium as regularly as Portland, Kansas City and Orlando.
RBNY has the nicest privately-funded stadium in MLS, and its training facility is a beauty as well. Its youth academy has been among the best in the league, producing players like Matt Miazga, Sean Davis and Tyler Adams. Results on the field under coach Jesse Marsch have been very good the last two years, with the team posting the best record in the East both seasons (despite failing to reach the MLS Cup final). All things considered, though, there still isn’t much buzz about RBNY in New York City, partly created by the decision to stop signing big-name DPs like Thierry Henry. What’s more, strange personnel decisions—like parting ways with sporting director Ali Curtis recently—have combined with the impression that Red Bull Austria doesn’t pay much attention these days to create a vibe of uncertainty around this team.
What’s good in Vancouver? Youth development, for sure. The Whitecaps have had a fully-funded, full-time youth program since 2007, and they like to proclaim that commissioner Don Garber says they invest more in youth development than any other team in the league. All told, Vancouver has signed 13 homegrown players since joining MLS in 2011, and the current roster has five of them (including promising 16-year-old Alphonso Davies). BC Place enjoys a solid downtown location but unfortunately has artificial turf. DP investment isn’t what it was a few years ago, but the return of Fredy Montero to MLS (on loan from Tianjin Teda) is a positive.
Confession: I ranked RSL too low last year. It’s a tough call. Based on people I talk to, this is one of the cheapest teams in the league on a day-to-day basis. And yet the infrastructure investment is truly impressive, headed by a new $50 million training facility that’s set to open later this year and a nine-year-old, $110 million stadium (built with a public/private partnership) that has served the club well. The youth academy has always been strong, and Designated Player spending has also increased this season, led by the signing (and transfer fee) of playmaker Albert Rusnak.
You want a new, privately-funded, nice-but-not-fancy stadium that cost $100 million? O.K., here you go. The Earthquakes own the stadium and the land. Although there isn’t a stand-alone training facility, San Jose’s practice field is right next to the stadium, and the team has committed to building a separate youth complex that will cost between $30 million and $40 million. DP spending isn’t in the top half of the league, although the Earthquakes do plan to sign a third one this summer. Spending on technical staff, including coach Dom Kinnear and new GM Jesse Fioranelli, is near the top of the league, however. But with the team predicted to struggle this season, two-time league champ Kinnear is very much on the hot seat.
The Union has spent some serious money on youth development, averaging $4 million a year over the past five seasons. That includes a soccer-specific high school with 75 full-time students. Talen Energy Stadium, the seven-year-old, $120 million home, has an amazing view of the Delaware River and a not-so-amazing location in Chester. But the training fields next to the stadium have been upgraded, and the team offices are now housed in a cool part of the old power plant next door. The Union doesn’t spend a lot on DPs (Alejandro Bedoya and Maurice Edu), but they do invest in a good TV product, with JP Dellacamera and Tommy Smyth calling games this season.
Last season: 18
Look, Colorado deserves a bump upward for its increased spending on DPs, from Tim Howard ($2.6 million a year) to Shkelzen Gashi ($1.7 million). That’s something we hadn’t seen before 2016 from this club, and they helped push the Rapids to a performance beyond anyone’s expectations last season. Attendance was up too at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, a decent 10-year-old facility that’s located in a part of the city best known for truck stops.
You can’t escape the fact that Toyota Park is a disaster, an 11-year-old, $100 million monument to poor decisions, and it’s only a matter of time before the Fire gets out of its onerous lease with the city of Bridgeview and moves its games downtown. The club argues that it has spent where it can (read: everywhere but on the stadium) and says owner Andrew Hauptman has invested a total of more than $100 million across the organization over the years, including $5 million on DPs Nemanja Nikolic and David Accam ahead of the 2017 season. Second-year GM Nelson Rodríguez needs to see improvement on the field from Veljko Paunovic’s team that finished in last place in the East in 2016. Located in one of the world’s great cities, the Fire needs to regain relevance there. Until then, it will remain one of the sad stories in MLS. Another intriguing note: Chicago doesn’t have a USL team.
Last season: 12
Stade Saputo is what it is: A low-cost soccer stadium in a good location that gets the job done. DP spending is down with the departure of Didier Drogba and nobody of his stature to replace him. Montreal does have its own modest training facility for its first team and youth ranks, though spending on youth development is near the bottom of the league. We do like the passion of owner Joey Saputo and wish every MLS owner cared so much publicly for his team.
Finally, finally, finally, United broke ground earlier this week on Audi Field, the urban stadium that many thought would never get built. That should be a game-changer for the four-time league champion, which claims that the stadium will end up having a total investment of $500 million (insert scratching-head emoji). So United gets a bump upward, even though it remains one of the league’s cheapest teams day-to-day. We’ll be looking to see what gets done with a training facility next. The current practice field next to RFK Stadium is … not ideal.
Mapfre Stadium is historic in its own way, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. But in 2017 it feels like a high school facility, which is why Columbus needs to do something about building a new home for the team. Last summer the Crew launched a study to measure community demand and economic development impact for a new stadium, and the team needs to make it happen. The Crew is doing some good things with youth development, spending nearly $2.5 million in that area in 2016, and the club renovated its training facility completely in 2014. DP spending (on Federico Higuaín and Jonathan Mensah) is middle of the pack in MLS.
There’s a malaise in Houston that’s a little hard to figure out. Some of it is obvious, like the poor decision to hire Owen Coyle, who lasted 17 months as manager. Some of it is a head-scratcher, like the reasons why a five-year-old, $95 million stadium in a great downtown location would be lacking in atmosphere. Players from Houston’s title-winning teams (Stu Holden, Geoff Cameron, et al) were publicly unhappy when former teammate Wade Barrett was passed over for the coaching job last year, but if Wilmer Cabrera can get things going, winning would override that discontent. DP spending (on Alberth Elis and Erick Torres) and youth development are decent, but this club needs a kickstart.
It’s all about building a stadium for this 2017 expansion team. To be specific, a privately-financed stadium costing $150 million. Everything else is pretty bare bones right now, from spending on players to an academy and USL team, which are supposed to come online next year. The jersey sponsorship by Target is good, as are the 11,000 season ticket holders. I almost feel like putting an N/A next to Minnesota instead of a ranking number, because a lot remains to be seen about this team’s ambitions.
Here we go again. How is it that the Krafts, one of the most beloved ownership groups in the NFL, might be the most disliked owners by their own fans in MLS? As James Carville might say, it’s the stadium, stupid. Here we are in 2017, the team’s 22nd season, and it still doesn’t have an urban soccer stadium or any set plan to build one. “A project is currently in process” in Boston’s “urban core,” the team says, and if it gets done the Revs will rise in the Ambition Rankings. Until then, they’ll remain at the bottom.
For detailed, inside information about each club that factored into their ranking (plus info on 2018 expansion club LAFC), click below for their individual responses to our universal survey. Every club was asked the same set of questions, and their direct replies have been edited only for clarity. All but two clubs provided answers: