Posted March 14, 2014

2014 MLS Ambition Rankings: Toronto FC rises to No. 1

Grant Wahl, MLS
Tim Leiweke, Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley

Toronto FC honcho Tim Leiweke is all smiles sitting next to his two huge winter acquisitions, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports)

How much can my 3rd annual MLS Ambition Rankings change in one year? Well, consider Toronto and D.C. United. One year ago, D.C. was No. 9 and Toronto was No. 10 in my rankings, one man’s subjective measure of the aspirations among MLS’s 19 teams and their owners.

This year? Toronto is No. 1 and D.C. is No. 18.

Such is life in the ever-changing world of MLS, which will add two more teams next year (New York City FC and Orlando) to reach 21. But if one thing remains a constant, it is this: Tim Leiweke is the most ambitious figure in MLS, and that’s the case wherever he may be. For years, Leiweke’s LA Galaxy was the gold standard of MLS ambition — the team that signed David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan, the team that won two straight MLS Cup titles under coach Bruce Arena in 2011 and 2012.

Then, on March 14, 2013, Leiweke got pushed out as the CEO of Galaxy owner AEG by no less than the man representing the ‘A’: owner Phil Anschutz. Six weeks later, Leiweke signed on as the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the perpetually underperforming Toronto FC. And in January, Leiweke pulled off the doubly audacious feat of committing nearly $100 million to signing two marquee players, Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.

Throw in the additions of Júlio César, Dwayne De Rosario and DP Gilberto, to say nothing of plans to expand Toronto’s BMO Field, and Leiweke’s TFC has shot up to the top of the 2014 Ambition Rankings with a bullet.

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? Do you have a jersey sponsor? Does the atmosphere at your games feel major league? Do you create real buzz? Do you pony up for training-table meals, top-flight practice facilities, youth development programs and first-class travel for international competitions?

How well does your team back up what it says it’ll do? 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 19 MLS teams asking them about their investments and ambitions for their clubs.

DIGGING DEEPER: Inside the numbers behind the Ambition Rankings 

Where does your team rank? Let’s break it down:

1. TORONTO FC (10 in 2013; 5 in 2012)TFCLogo

It all starts with Leiweke and the blockbuster signings of Defoe and Bradley, who are set to make their TFC debuts on Saturday against Seattle (4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). MLSE has never been afraid to spend money on TFC — though not on this level — but competence has always been the problem.

Not so with Leiweke, who has a track record of backing up his big bets. Besides proposing a $108 million expansion of BMO Field, MLSE has already built a $19 million training facility and academy for TFC, the league’s most expensive. New GM Tim Bezbatchenko, a numbers-cruncher, has also brought in an entirely new analytics department. Is it any wonder that TFC’s season ticket sales have shot up to 17,000 this season? That’s No. 2 in MLS behind only …

2. SEATTLE SOUNDERS (2 in 2013; 2 in 2012)SoundersLogo

Sounders principal owner Joe Roth was the main guy who pushed to acquire Clint Dempsey last August with a commitment of $33 million, ushering MLS into a new era of big contracts to land U.S. national-teamers in their prime (That Dempsey has struggled since then isn’t Seattle ownership’s fault).

The pressure to win in Seattle is immense, not least because the Sounders’ average attendance (44,038 last season) is among the top 50 in world club soccer. No city in MLS feels more “major league” than Seattle. The club’s 34,000 season-ticket holders are twice as many as any other MLS team, and owners Roth, Adrian Hanauer and Drew Carey say they’re tired of not having won an MLS Cup title. The ambition here is so palpable that Seattle (like Toronto with its two stars) is willing to overpay for players like Dempsey. Now that sounds like a big U.S. pro sports league!

3. LOS ANGELES GALAXY (1 in 2013; 1 in 2012)LAGLogo

The moment LA lost Leiweke was the day the Galaxy risked being passed in the Ambition Rankings. Not that LA has turned miserly under coach/GM Bruce Arena and president Chris Klein: Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan and Omar González have all signed lucrative new DP contracts post-Leiweke, and while those seem like smart moves, you do wonder if a Leiweke-overseen club would ever sign a defender to a DP deal.

The Galaxy has invested millions in development, signing seven Homegrown players from its academy and this year becoming the first MLS team to own and operate a second-division pro team (Galaxy II, which will play in third-tier USL Pro). LA has the league’s most lucrative club sponsorship package (About $14 million/year) and local TV rights deal ($5 million/year with Time Warner Cable), offsetting a surprisingly low season-ticket base of just more than 7,500 (No. 11 in the league). Still: If the Galaxy can win a record fifth MLS Cup title, it can safely be called the greatest club in MLS history.

4. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (3 in 2013; 4 in 2012)SKClogo

No MLS club has come close to enjoying a bigger turn-around than Sporting, the reigning MLS Cup champion, which has transformed its city from a soccer dead zone to a bonafide hotbed in a few short years. Under an ownership group spearheaded by Robb Heineman (a Twitter must-follow), SKC built a $200 million stadium that regularly sells out, thanks to a rabid group of season-ticket holders capped at 14,000 (with a wait-list of more than 3,000).

Despite not having Toronto or Seattle money, Kansas City has invested more than $18 million in its training facility at Swope Soccer Village, which will have nine full-size fields when complete. Sponsorships are up to $7.1 million in 2014 (even before a stadium-naming rights deal gets done), and the new local TV deal includes regional affiliates in nine states across the Midwest. With a vast youth development network, SKC’s Homegrown signings include Erik Palmer-Brown (who has drawn the close interest of Juventus) and Kevin Ellis (who scored in CONCACAF Champions League on Wednesday vs. Cruz Azul).

5. PORTLAND TIMBERS (7 in 2013; 6 in 2012)TimbersLogo

Soccer just feels “major league” in Portland, both for the Timbers and their wildly successful women’s team, the Thorns. (Only Houston in MLS also owns a women’s team.) Owner Merritt Paulson (another engaging must-follow on Twitter) lives and dies with his team and has invested in both revamping urban Providence Park for soccer (with some public support) and building a $10 million training facility in town.

The organization has treated its hardcore fans well and made the right moves to increase public demand, capping season tickets at 15,300 (No. 3 in MLS) with a gargantuan wait-list of more than 9,000 (No. 1 in the league). Every MLS home game has been a sellout, at 54 and counting. On the development side, Portland runs the state of Oregon’s ODP program, has five regional training centers and has authored a 95-page “Sporting Performance Plan” that details club philosophy, objective, principles of play (style and system) and team culture that is meant to guide all soccer department decisions. As with Kansas City under Peter Vermes, Portland’s success on the field under Caleb Porter last season is a case study in how to win despite being a small-market team.

6. NEW YORK RED BULLS (5 in 2013; 3 in 2012)RedBullsLogo

It’s a little unfair for New York to fall a spot after winning last year’s Supporters’ Shield, but that’s due more to teams like Toronto and Portland standing out than anything else. After using its own money to build a beautiful $200 million stadium, the Red Bulls still don’t fill it despite the on-field success and the spending on DPs Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill.

That said, the Red Bulls invested in a “multi-million” dollar (their phrase) training facility that opened last June, and their youth academy is one of the better regarded ones in the league. Not filling its third DP spot after Rafa Márquez’s departure is somewhat surprising, but look for it to happen as soon as this summer. With NYCFC starting play next year, the Red Bulls need to work their own magic in the Gotham arms race.

SI VAULT: 2012 Ambition Rankings | 2013 Ambition Rankings 


"But he runs through coaches like empty soda cans: Frank Klopas, let go by Chicago, is Montreal’s third coach in as many years in MLS."

Still bitter about that one, Grant? (*cough* Nesta is Montreal's next coach *cough*)


A little unfair by Wahl since his take is more like a fan:   spend, spend, spend.     The casual fan's solution is always I am angry: why don't you buy Messi/ Ronaldo/ and Suarez?????

However,  Tim Liewke is gold, too bad we never heard why he got the can, I will bet he did something personally bad and was forced out: like sexuall harassment and they buried it.


"Dallas was one of five MLS clubs that refused to release season-ticket figures to (along with New York, New England, Chivas USA and D.C. United)."



Not bad, although I'm surprised the the Crew are as low as they are. It seems like Precourt is near the top in "owner enthusiasm" which should count for something, even if they are mired in a bit of a dead zone.


@BenjaminHopper  The problem with Dallas is the poor decision to build Pizza Hut Park so far out of town.  I understand it's in the center of Soccermomville, except that it's not.  It doesn't feel like Dallas.  It feels like a stadium in the middle of nowhere.  Bottom line, if you live in DFW, it's just too hard to love them.


@xbgix I was thinking that they'd be up higher too, but alas it's been mostly talk so far.  The next 12 months should give us a better idea of what his vision is for Columbus.

Looking forward to the home opener in 50 hours, but who's counting? :-)


@MrTuktoyaktuk  I'm a huge Klinns fan but remember he is the one that told them to hire previous coach: disaster.

Nelson is thick as a brick how will he know how to deal with a progressive team, he'll be gone soon.


@nd52 @BenjaminHopper The decision for FCD to market to soccermoms and fight for the 'family of 5' dollars and the hispanic market was palpable - and has left the team and many would be fans with envy greener that the Seattle and Portland jerseys at the fan support seen in those respective towns. The Austin PDL team had more atmosphere than an FC Dallas game. Sad.


@nd52 @BenjaminHopper You nailed it. Frisco was supposed to grow to be the center of all things not downtown Dallas. And the reality is that all of the growth has gone west. The center of Soccermomville is closer to Denton than Frisco now. A perfectly good site, right next to Cowboys Stadium and the Ballpark in Arlington is the ONLY thing that makes sense. So I promise the next time I have $400 million, I'll buy and move this team. PHP is a nice place but way underwhelming compared to the last 5 stadiums that have opened. As a Texan, I'm highly diappointed in the two teams here. Houston has had some on the field success, but there's really no less sexy way to find wins than the ORANGE Dynamo of the last 5 years. (Did I mention they wear ORANGE?)