By a combination of legitimate financial concerns, cheapskate owners, and a tight business relationship with U.S. Soccer, MLS is a boondoggle of bizarre rules. Some are intended to usher star players into the league, while other aim to develop American talent. Many of the league’s restrictive rules attempt to foster parity, preventing the gap from the best and worst teams from getting too big.
And because of this labyrinth of rules, there are a lot of different ways to build a successful team. Some of the best teams in MLS focus on taking advantage of the league’s incentives to develop their own talent. Others just go out and splash cash, figuring out clever ways to spend more than $30 million against a “salary cap” of about $4 million. Most of the bad teams in MLS use the restrictive rules as an excuse to do absolutely nothing, skating by with the knowledge that the best teams can never open up an insurmountable gap.
Understanding what teams are doing and why can be difficult to decipher because of the laws and bylaws that they’re picking apart. To help boil it down going into the 2019 season, I categorized teams’ squad-building philosophies in six different ways. If you don’t like how your team is represented here, yell at your team’s cheap and/or dumb owner instead of me.
1. Why build infrastructure when you can sign Zlatan?
The LA Galaxy get a category all to themselves, with a massive asterisk. They have the potential to be the league’s most well-rounded club in terms of internal player development, scouting, and acquisition of superstars. But right now they’re a mess of a club that counts on big names to solve all of their problems.
A hilarious lack of planning has landed the Galaxy in a pickle. They have four Designated Players* and only three DP slots. All four players — Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — are on big enough contracts that the Galaxy virtually can’t use any of the league’s cap figure-reducing mechanisms to make it so they’re not DPs anymore. Assuming MLS isn’t going to change the rules overnight (possible!), the Galaxy have three options: 1) Get rid of one of these players, 2) continue to pay one an exorbitant salary to not be on the roster, or 3) convince one to take an enormous voluntary pay cut.
*The actual rule is complicated, but for the uninitiated, the short version is: Designated Players count for $500,000 against the salary cap despite costing their teams much more than that.
Every time the Galaxy suck on the field and see their attendance plummet, they react by signing the biggest name currently available on the market, leaving them in this awkward situation. They could probably afford to be a bit more picky with their DP signings and wait for the perfect acquisitions if they had a good scouting operation and academy to develop a pipeline of first team players, but they don’t.
But good news, Galaxy fans! New general manager Dennis te Kloese is the former youth technical director for the Mexican boys youth national team program, and a lot of his job involved recruiting Mexican-Americans from California to join up with El Tri instead of the USMNT. He has both a deep knowledge of and affinity for youth players in LA, so expect the Galaxy to do a much better job of utilizing the best academy in the country going forward. It also helps that new head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto comes from Boca Juniors, a club where the directors expect managers to put talented teenagers in the shop window.
We’ll be having a much different conversation about the Galaxy a year from now. But for now, they deserve to be mocked.
2. Let’s spend as much as possible and see what happens
A huge shoutout to the teams that are really, truly trying their best. That’s not to say all of these teams are well-run and successful, but no one can accuse them of being cheap or conservative.
Good version: Atlanta United — In just their second season in MLS, Atlanta captured the MLS Cup, led by stars Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. The latter player was recently sold to Newcastle United for approximately $25 million, more than doubling Atlanta’s investment in the Paraguayan star. They spent about $15 million each on Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez, the two most expensive transfer fees in MLS history. They also spent $60 million on their training facility.
“But they get to play in a brand new NFL stadium rent free,” fans of other teams cry. To which the only appropriate response is: U mad.
OK version: Toronto FC — Before Atlanta came along, Toronto was the league’s model franchise. Their multiple stadium expansions, massive payroll, and Supporters Shield-MLS Cup double made them look like a goliath that could not be stopped. Now they’re very much in Atlanta’s shadow and facing the difficult task of replacing one of the league’s best ever players, Sebastian Giovinco. Their 4-0 loss to Independiente in CONCACAF Champions League suggests that they are going to stink until they make some big transfers, but they still deserve credit for pushing the league forward.
Bad version: Colorado Rapids — Don’t laugh. I know you’re wondering how the hell the Rapids ended up in this category, but it seems like they spend about as much as they reasonably can. They just have insanely low revenue compared to the league’s top teams. I’m not here to defend the Kroenke family — billionaires and perpetually mediocre sports owners — but they’ve been willing to lose like $10 million a year on this team.
3. Hello, yes, we are an MLS team
Most teams in MLS take a nice, safe, mixed approach to squad building. They sign one international star, a half-dozen solid, mid-level international players, some MLS veterans, and use their academy to churn out a couple MLS-level homegrowns. They don’t spend that much, nor are they particularly cheap. They scout for value abroad, but they’re not innovative. Their fans have nothing to complain about.
Good version: Seattle Sounders — The Sounders are one of the bigger spenders in MLS, but they’re also one of the league’s top revenue earners. Majority owner Adrian Hanauer has discussed the need to balance winning on the field with not losing a shitload of money, and he’s done a really good job of that. Even if he hasn’t spent at Atlanta and LA Galaxy levels, the signings of Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro were ambitious. The Sounders’ academy and USL setup have progressed nicely. They’ve won an MLS Cup and they make the playoffs every year, usually with a first-round bye. The Sounders are a very well-run organization.
OK version: Half the league — I’m not going to list them, but if you don’t see your team mentioned specifically in this piece, they fit here. Your favorite team is not particularly ambitious, weird, or stupid. They’re just a pretty good and smart team. Congrats! This is a fine type of team to be a fan of. They win championships occasionally and rarely piss you off.
Bad version: Chicago Fire — International superstar Bastian Schweinsteiger! Extremely good goal-scorer Nemanja Nikolić! Homegrown gem and budding USMNT star Djordje Mihailovic! But also: Letting good players walk! A minus-13 goal differential and constant feuds with your own fans!
The Fire are weird, man.
4. Cheap but trying, a.k.a. “building from within”
Some teams don’t see a lot of value in signing big name international players or filling all three of their DP slots. That’s fine if you have a real strategy, or if you’re genuinely broke. And hey, maybe American soccer would be better off if rich teams took some lessons from these organizations.
Good version: New York Red Bulls — If I was a New York Red Bulls fan, I’d be pretty skeptical about the team’s reluctance to sign an international megastar following Thierry Henry’s departure. Henry was a roaring success, after all. And plus, the team is in the biggest media market in the country, is owned by a company worth more than $10 billion, and plays in a gorgeous stadium that was funded by taxpayers. Y’all really can’t get a serious, big-name DP?
But hey, if you’re going to be cheap, at least be cheap the way the Red Bulls are cheap. They won the 2018 Supporters’ Shield with a record points total despite changing coaches midseason. The spine of the team was made up of two homegrown signings — Tyler Adams and Sean Davis — and their defense was anchored by Aaron Long, who didn’t make his MLS debut until three years after he left college. Long started for the USMNT this January, and looks like he’ll have a big role in the national team going forward.
All three of those players spent significant time with USL affiliate Red Bulls II before establishing themselves as first team players. The Red Bulls currently have seven players signed to homegrown deals, plus another seven players on their roster who played significant minutes for Red Bulls II before winning roles with the senior squad. They’re doing a great job of identifying players who have the talent to be MLS starters and providing them with an environment to get better.
Yes, the Red Bulls are cheap, but the USMNT also wouldn’t have Tyler Adams and Aaron Long without them.
OK version: FC Dallas — Dallas has churned out more homegrown players than anyone else in the league. They currently have eight on their roster, and several more recent Dallas academy graduates play on other MLS squads. Those players have been instrumental in Dallas’ playoff runs. But Dallas’ lack of an owned-and-operated USL team has meant that a lot of their products have been asked to sink or swim in MLS way too early. Who knows how good Dallas could be if they had a Red Bulls-like setup to help former homegrowns who didn’t quite work out, like Bryan Leyva and Alejandro Zendejas.
FCD finally has its own USL team — North Texas SC — after years of resistance. Hopefully that leads to more of its academy products becoming good first team players.
Bad version: Philadelphia Union — The Union are certainly not without potential. Their homegrown centerback duo of Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty — both excellent USMNT Under-20 players — suggests that Philly’s academy-to-MLS pipeline has turned a corner. Union head coach Jim Curtin has stated that they are committed to building through their academy and giving chances to as many young players as possible. But so far, the Union are the least successful of the teams operating under this model, with more disappointments than successes from their academy and draft picks (sad piano music plays for Zach Pfeffer and Josh Yaro).
5. Cheap and not really trying
Weirdly, I find that fans of these teams are willing to go to bat for their owners on Twitter? I’m not really sure why. Shoutout to these guys for doing juuuuuuust enough to keep the mob at bay, I guess.
Bad version: FC Cincinnati — Cincinnati gets a little bit of benefit of the doubt by virtue of being an expansion team. We have not seen them play yet, so we can’t say with any degree of certainty that they’ll be bad. They also have two Designated Players, so it could be a lot worse. But their roster looks bad and they haven’t been aggressive in scouting and recruiting international talent. They have a squad of veteran USL stars and MLS castoffs. They’ve essentially assembled a team of guys that other MLS teams didn’t think were good enough.
Worse version: Minnesota United — In their expansion season, Minnesota had a historically poor defense, allowing 70 goals. They did nothing to improve that defense in the offseason and allowed 71 goals the following year. They didn’t fire their coach. Osvaldo Alonso and Ike Opara — both over 30 and with significant injury histories — are the new acquisitions being counted on to fix the problem. New DP midfielder Ján Greguš might help too, but believing in this team requires a lot of blind faith.
6. I’m just here so I don’t get fined
Do Lew Wolff and Bob Kraft know that they own soccer teams? Well, it’s hard to say.
Bad version: San Jose Earthquakes — I have a suspicion that we will be talking about the Quakes in different terms shortly. Matías Almeyda is an ambitious head coaching hire, and he probably wouldn’t have taken the job unless he was convinced that the club’s infrastructure was improving rapidly. But the Quakes have consistently stunk for five years, signed a lot of very bad players, and still rely on 36-year-old Chris Wondolowski to generate most of their attacking output. They’ve tanked the careers of promising youngsters with ruthless efficiency — Tommy Thompson, in particular, comes to mind — and generally embarrassed themselves at every turn.
Wondo is a saint and deserves better. It sucks that this team won’t compete for a title until after he’s no longer able to play at a high level.
Worse version: New England Revolution — Every talented player they’ve had in the last three years has asked to leave, and their big offseason acquisition was Aston Villa and Depor washout Carles Gil. I am certain that the Krafts care more about their Overwatch team than the Revs.
There are lots of ways to build an MLS team. The Revolution are the absolute worst. If you give this team your money, you are being scammed.