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How each MLS club strives (and struggles) to find authentic identity

Written by Will Parchman


Earnie Stewart opened up a soccer vein and bled. And this sentiment is what coated everything.

“What made me proudest of all was that I turned on the TV, I’m watching my old team (AZ Alkmaar), and they’re playing FC Twente. They started the game with five players that came out of the academy. The three substitutions that came in were academy players who came in for players that they bought. That’s eight academy players on the field, and they won the game in the last minute. It doesn’t say much, all of the crap that I took for having a plan and having a vision, but that game – and I’m not there anymore – those eight kids were out there. They’re really good. One is up for the Dutch national team. Another has gotten sold for millions. The others are competing for European soccer.

“That part makes me very proud. That’s why I sit here and can say to you, and I don’t want to sound corny or sound like the 76ers, but I have a passion and a burning desire and we’re going to get there. Hopefully soon those seats will be full. And people who come for winning and losing? If they’re only coming for that, I’m not going to promise it. If you come to see us win every game, don’t do it. You’re going to get disappointed.

“But if you come to watch our players roll up their sleeves, go out every day play within our vision, play in our system, and compete, we give those players chances. Everybody talks about DPs. Playing Derrick Jones and Josh Yaro, they are DPs for me. They don’t make DP money at all. They’re not even close. But they are gonna be DPs for us.”

This was part of a longer quote Stewart, the Philadelphia Union GM, offered at a recent closed-doors town hall meeting. There is such depth of passion and longing in it that only emerges when you see your surroundings not for what they are, but what they look like in some cloistered corner of your vision. This is the feast-or-famine approach of an idealist, and it’s precisely the sort of mentality MLS’s unerring and jarring parity tends to grind into powder and scatter to the wind. Telling an American fan base not to come only for wins would seem mutinous to some. Stewart, gratefully, thinks differently.

Identity is not a manufacturable good. It is the sum of time plus consistency, an equation that has no circumvention or shortcut. This is especially problematic in MLS, because time is not a luxury it has to spread at the moment. It is the global equivalent of a teenager, steady enough on its feet but still learning how to define itself in any discernible shape. And if my past is of any broader significance, nobody really has any idea who they are as a teenager.

Stewart’s words are an echoing yearning for identity. He wants the Union desperately to be a developer club, to have a pipeline unclogged enough to beat big-money buyers with YSC Academy’s fruit. And this is an achievable goal in MLS, because it’s being done right now. True identity burned into the woodgrain is a difficult thing to find in MLS, but Stewart is wholeheartedly seeking it in Philly. To put it frankly, MLS needs more men like him.

But I’d still argue MLS is finally old enough to have definable club identities. Perhaps they aren’t as ingrained as most of the world’s other leagues, and most are still fluid to the point of pure liquidity. But I do think we can begin separating some clubs from others in terms of how they approach club-building. This, ultimately, is how I personally see them segmented.

Buying Clubs
Teams with the license to pull the trigger on the transfer market for most any player regardless of immediate feel or fit

LA Galaxy
Seattle Sounders
Atlanta United
Toronto FC

Notes: The relationship between pure buying clubs and the MLS front office is probably more frayed than most people know. While most MLS clubs are more than willing to work inside the bounds of the league’s restrictive allocation rules set because they frankly don’t have the resources to do otherwise, these five are most aggrieved by the league’s monetary shackles. If MLS lifted the salary cap tomorrow, the league’s title race year over year would probably settle into a sort of loose Big Five. And this is the top of the table.

Of this list, the modern LA Galaxy are the most awkward bedfellows. In the post-Bruce Arena era, the Galaxy talked more about smart money than big money, but turning around and paying $722K to a broken Jermaine Jones is an Old World DP tactic. Whatever they’d like to become in five years, the Galaxy of today are still built to take massive swings on Robbie Keane contracts while attempting to fill in around the Galacticos as best as possible. It’ll take a long time for LA to join the Smart Money group, if that’s even what they want, but for now the Galaxy’s structure means spend or die.

The Sounders and TFC meeting in the 2016 MLS Cup finale had a whiff of Europe about it. Both are the MLS equivalent of a European big spender, and while the Sounders’ struggles in 2016 masked it a bit, this was more or less like Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich meeting in a cup final. MLS’s maddening parity and nothing-matters-until-summer nature means bizarre conference tables and results patterns are the rule of law, but year over year both TFC and Seattle will continually be in the title discussion because their money plows through obstacles (like failed signings) where others’ does not.

When your coffers are this deep, and the league only requires a couple foundational stars to win titles, both fan bases have zero to worry about in the long term. Plus, GMs Tim Bezbatchenko and Garth Lagerwey are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league, the specific order depending on which city you’re in.

NYCFC and Atlanta United are new money infused from other ventures, the former from one of the world’s deepest soccer banks and the latter from the Blank checks (sorry) puffed up by the NFL and private venture. Atlanta United’s money works a bit harder, and NYCFC is far more concerned with global brand colonization than Atlanta United’s South American pipeline is. But both are immense, mega-bucks clubs added to the league within two years of one another. If the expansion of the early 2010s was mostly about small-ball, then these two represent giant monetary swings. Both will presumably be competing for all the titles until that changes.

Smart Money Clubs
Teams willing to spend gaudy seven-digit sums but more content to find fit over outright flash

Portland Timbers
Orlando City
Sporting KC
Columbus Crew

Notes: The Timbers are in a strange shadow realm between the SKC’s of the world, which spend significantly less overall, and their Cascadia rivals to the north, who think nothing of having two $4 million-plus contracts on the books at one time. I don’t think it’s fair to say the Timbers don’t spend lavishly by the standards of some of the league’s clubs, but I also think it’s a misnomer to consider them an outright spending club. Even though they’re all big money guys, Fanendo Adi ($1.75m), Diego Valeri ($2.6m), and Diego Chara ($522K) are all outperforming players earning at significantly higher price points.

As far as Orlando City is concerned, I think the somewhat outrageous Kaka contract masked who they really are as a club. His is the only seven-figure deal currently on Orlando City’s books, and names like Rivas, Larin and Redding more appropriately identify a club willing to spend but actively looking to develop and buy smart and young. Bryan Rochez was ultimately a bust, but the idea was sound. Even if Orlando City is currently in a transition period under Jason Kreis, I don’t think fans have anything to worry about in the long term.

Sporting KC and the Columbus Crew are probably on a lower out-and-out spending tier than Orlando City and Portland, but both are utterly convinced of what they are, whether you like the sort of soccer they espouse or not. Under Peter Vermes, SKC has the best No. 6 pipeline in MLS with guys like Roger Espinoza, Oriol Rosell and now Ilie Sanchez. And Gregg Berhalter mines his contacts in Europe with the best of them while paying heavily for wingbacks to run his width-heavy passing setup. I think both of these clubs know foundationally what and who they are, whether they succeed in those endeavors at a clip commensurate with the league’s best or not.

Analytical Academy Clubs
Teams reliant on a steady mixture of chasing smart money in the international transfer market and consistent academy promotion

New York Red Bulls
FC Dallas
Real Salt Lake

Notes: I think there’s an immediate warmth to these clubs because what they do carries a tremendously high threshold of difficulty. And then, once breached, it’s sustainable for the length of the club’s lifespan, so long as upper management doesn’t gut it first. By most any measure in any sport FCD is a small money, small market club that turned the league on its tail and used its rigid monetary policy to its advantage. With the combination of a cavalcade of Homegrowns, FCD is among the most impressive budding dynasties in MLS history.

The Red Bulls took time to get there, but they’ve arrived. For now, anyway. European ownership seems to be capricious, but under Jesse Marsch the Red Bulls shifted from blindly swinging at Rafa Marquezes and more rarely connecting on a Thierry Henry to pulling up Matt Miazgas and Sean Davises supplemented by whip-smart buys lacking in razzle-dazzle like Sacha Kljestan. If we’re talking sustainable top-down organizational ethos, RBNY and FCD can sustain themselves on austerity measures for years. Nobody else can at the same rate.

But this isn’t a guaranteed path to glory, and RSL’s current struggles can attest. You can only go so far living off your academy without a sturdy team built around it from smart transfer market buys, and RSL is currently failing at the latter discipline. Academy clubs require consistent, understanding ownership to buy into the long term vision and live with the turbulent mule-kicks when youth looks inevitably… youthful. RSL ownership has been anything but stable in the last five years, and the club is feeling the effects of it now.

Blue Collar Clubs
Teams that otherwise spurned a more holistic strategy in favor of thriftiness; each is comprised entirely of players under the million-dollar threshold

New England Revolution
Houston Dynamo
San Jose Earthquakes
D.C. United

Notes: If there’s a group at which you narrow your eyes and knit your brow into a fixed state of consternation, this is the one. None have done enough. At best, each of these clubs has the possibility of joining the Smart Money group, and each have had at least a half decade to join the academy club fraternity. Instead, in the last 10 years there are a grand total of three domestic trophies combined among these four teams: San Jose’s anomalous 2012 Supporter’s Shield and D.C. United’s 2008 U.S. Open Cup title alongside its fluke 2013 USOC trophy in the midst of one of the worst regular seasons in MLS history.

The Dynamo have one foot in limbo but haven’t yet done enough to pull themselves out of this group. Houston will probably have bulled into the Smart Money grouping by this time next year, and moves like Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis should pay out year over year. But we’re only five months into the project, and you can’t overcome a half decade of institutional neglect overnight. They might be on an encouraging track out of this swamp, but they’re not there yet.

You might consider San Jose in similar stead. New GM Jesse Fioranelli certainly seems like the genuine article, and he’s made a series of smart if unremarkable transfers since arriving: Florian Jungwirth, Jahmir Hyka, and Marco Urena were all sensible pickups and Danny Hoesen’s is the sort of loan MLS clubs should expect. Whether or not they can bootstrap themselves out of this hole is yet to be decided, but they’re certainly in a better place than they were a year ago.

As for D.C. United and New England, the future looks considerably bleaker. DCU seems to be in a destructive holding pattern until the new stadium opens, but the fact that management has done little to boost the team’s overall technical level until that time (and to pay someone more than $600K) doesn’t speak well to its commitment. New England might be in the worst place of all. The Krafts seem to care little about the Revs as a product, and until infused with significantly more buying power on the open market and their own stadium, the soccer guys on the ground will continue to bear the brunt of the neglect.

Limbo Clubs
Teams with front offices either too young to codify a single coherent approach over time or those without a clearly evident personnel strategy

Chicago Fire
Philadelphia Union
Vancouver Whitecaps
Minnesota United
Colorado Rapids
Montreal Impact

Notes: You can’t really say any of these clubs truly neglect the product on the field across the board. The Rapids legitimately tried, in their own derpy way, to create a one-off MLS Cup team in 2016 behind Shkelzen Gashi, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones. It didn’t work, and I suspect the Rapids will sink back into the pack now that Howard is breaking down and Jones’ bizarre postseason fairy dust is gone, but the Rapids gave it a swing. I’m not convinced they have any idea where to go from here, but Colorado has three seven-figure contracts on the books. It isn’t as though they don’t spend.

But as a whole, each of these clubs in some way represents an era MLS would sooner assume as a bygone one; none are quite sure what they are yet. And if they think they know, that train has yet to come close to arriving at the station.

The Fire seem to be lurching forward like some oddly constructed soccering Frankenstein, but against the odds their shadow Buying Club approach appears to be working in 2017. Snapping up Dax McCarty and Juninho and then paying top 5 MLS money for Bastian Schweinsteiger is just the sort of thing an LA Galaxy or an NYCFC would do, which means we maybe reconsider the Fire as a *gulp* Buying Club if this becomes a trend. Their roster doesn’t appear to have any unifying approach to it, and it certainly doesn’t value any one thing over the other, but the Fire don’t seem particularly concerned with longevity at the moment. They’re built for about a two or three-year title window before starting over.

The Union, I think, are the most interesting club here. As I eluded to at the top, they’re verging on becoming one of those Academy clubs alongside the FCDs of the world, but they haven’t had their system in place long enough to cultivate that as an ironclad identity yet. And in fact, they don’t really have an identity, a natural malady after only existing as a club (and poorly, for the first few years) for a half decade. Their roster doesn’t make much tactical sense together, and their academy operation is still too green to have produced much in the way of first teamers. But if Stewart is right, and the Union are espousing all those lofty beliefs he brought with him from Holland, then I suspect Philly will be joining RSL, RBNY and FCD within the next couple years.

Minnesota United is far too young to make much in the way of pronouncements. I have no idea of their five-year plan, or even a two-year plan, but I suspect making any sort of pronouncement on either is premature. And as for Montreal and Vancouver, both are stuck between academies that produce Homegrowns year over year and occasional seven-figure splashes. Neither seem capable of picking a discernible path forward, and while they’ll continue to have fleeting bouts with success, they’ll also continue to sink back into the mire as quickly as they rose until they find a more consistent pathway forward.

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