Ranking all 28 MLS owners from worst to first, part one

Quick
Hits
  • The summer is almost here, which means that we’re handing out some report cards to MLS owners
  • Using four categories – ambition, front offices, infrastructure, and the oh-so-mysterious intangibles – we’re ranking all 28 owners in the league
  • So, how does your team’s owner rank relative to the rest of the bunch?
Sep 9, 2019; Austin, TX, USA; Austin FC majority partner and ceo Anthony Precourt welcoming and addresses the attendees prior to the ground breaking ceremony at McKalla Place. Mandatory Credit: John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

With school nearly out for the summer across America, it’s report card time. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be grading the principal owners or ownership groups of every MLS club on the good ‘ole A-F scale. 

I’m using a few different categories here.

Ambition: In MLS, the league roster rules are designed to create parity. However, there are a couple of mechanisms where teams with ambitious owners can spend outside the salary cap. An owner with an “A” here would be consistently opening the checkbook for big-time Designated Players, utilizing the new-ish U22 Initiative, and spending their discretionary Target Allocation Money.

Front Office: In a salary cap league where you can’t simply spend your way out of problems, who you select to run your team is of utmost importance. An owner with an “A” here is one that is able to pick the right soccer-decision-making executives to run their team and who aids in player recruitment by developing a scouting network and a data/analytics team.

Infrastructure: Stadium, training facilities, and an academy are important tools for a modern soccer team. The top grade here goes to owners who have invested in a grass soccer-specific stadium in a great location, professional training facilities, the academy pipeline, and reserve teams. Don’t @ me teams that play at NFL stadiums.

Intangibles: It’s not really a report card if the teacher can’t put their thumb on the scales to bump up their favorites or send that little turd to summer school.

First up this week, the 14 worst owners in MLS. Stay tuned for the rest of this list next week.

28. David Tepper, Charlotte FC

Ambition: D

Front Office: F

Infrastructure: D

Intangibles: D

Look, I’ve already written about Charlotte’s rough start to life in MLS. It’s hard to rate an expansion side and its owner based on only a couple months, but firing Miguel Angel Ramirez despite being just outside the playoff picture with a problematic and incomplete roster because a DP didn’t like him is pretty damning. In addition to a concerning front office exodus, David Tepper’s MLS team will be playing indefinitely on turf in an NFL stadium. Charlotte also has an unknown analytics capability, only has academy teams at three age groups, no current MLS Next Pro squad, and had plans for a professional training facility evaporate

Apologies to Sir Minty, but there is a limit to how much I could curve your grade.

27. John Fisher, San Jose Earthquakes

Ambition: D

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: C

While a 30-for-30 on Matias Alymeda’s time with the Earthquakes would be great entertainment, the contents of this hypothetical documentary aren’t great for John Fisher’s place in these rankings. The handling of Alymeda’s dismissal reeked of an owner that should have fired the manager in the offseason but didn’t want to spend money paying a new manager while also paying off Almeyda. The lack of spending has always been a criticism of the Fisher-era. Cristian Espinzoa ($2.75 million) is the only player San Jose has ever spent more than a $2 million transfer fee on. 

Chris Leitch deserves some credit for the recent hiring of John Wolyniec and scouring the bargain bin for some undervalued players like Jeremy Ebobisse and Jamiro Monteiro, but ownership needs to spend some money for the Quakes to really take off.

26. Greg Kerfoot & Co., Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Ambition: C

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: F

The Vancouver Whitecaps have been a middling team in MLS for a while and most of their grades reflect that. They did spend $5 million a couple of years ago on Canadian striker Lucas Cavallini. They have 3 DPs and three U22 players. There are certainly worse places to play than a turf indoor CFL stadium like BC Place. The real reason that the Whitecaps’ owners are so low on the list stems from their disastrous handling of the abuse scandal that emerged from the women’s side of the Vancouver Whitecaps organization.

25. Stan Kroenke, Colorado Rapids

Ambition: F

Front Office: B

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: D

Stan Kroenke’s problematic ownership of the Colorado Rapids has been well-documented in the past. Sam Stejskal called Kroenke “absurdly absent from the Rapids organization” in his 2019 profile. The facts are that the Rapids are given a minimal budget to work with, which seriously hampers their development. It’s a testament to the creative team building that Padraig Smith and Robin Fraser, who recently signed an extension, have done over the last two seasons to win despite the spending limitations.

24. Merrit Paulson, Portland Timbers

Ambition: C

Front Office: B

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: F

The Portland Timbers should always be mentioned as one of the marquee franchises in MLS. They have an organic supporter culture, which is something that most MLS teams can only dream about, and a real rivalry with the Seattle Sounders.

The only thing wrong with Providence Park is the lack of grass. However, Paulson has stained both the Timbers and the Thorns, their NWSL sister club, over allegations that former Thorns coach Paul Riley had a history of grooming and sexually coercing female players – allegations that were reported both to Merrit Paulson and Timbers/Thorns GM Gavin Wilkerson. Portland supporters have continued to wage the fight to attempt to force both Paulson and Wilkerson out of Portland.

23. Ted Segal, Houston Dynamo

Ambition: C

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: C

A “C” is usually what the teacher gives you when they don’t really know what other grade to give to you. Ted Segal recently bought both the Houston Dynamo and NWSL’s Houston Dash. He hired Pat Onstad to run the front office and let him spend a bunch of money on Mexican national team captain Hector Herrera. Ostad has made some other savvy moves, including signing Darwin Quintero to a TAM deal. Let’s see where Houston goes from here, but there may just be some reasons for optimism for long-suffering Dynamo fans.

22. Joey Saputo, CF Montreal

Ambition: C

Front Office: B

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: D

Joey Saputo is an odd one. Saputo, who also owns Bologna F.C. in Serie A, built a really nice stadium and named it after himself. At times, he lets the front office go out and sign a top notch designated player like Victor Wanyama and other years it feels like the only moves Montreal make in the transfer market are loans to and from Bologna. The club also really upset supporters by replacing the Montreal Impact branding with CF Montréal with a badge that kinda of looks like a butt.

21. Jorge Mas & Co., Inter Miami CF

Ambition: A

Front Office: D

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: C

This was absolutely the funniest team to give an “A” rating to in the ambition category. Why? Well, uh, because the club was caught misreporting the number of DPs on their roster. Instead of three DPs, they had five, including French legend Blaise Matuidi, who should have been classified as DPs in 2020. For the sake of these rankings, how much the ownership group did or did not know is irrelevant. Even crazier for Miami is that even with those extra DPs, they still wound up in 10th place in the East in 2020 (and 11th place last year).

Miami will be reeling for years to come from the sanctions placed on them as a result of fudging their roster categorizations. Still, sporting director Chirs Henderson has created a roster that currently has Inter Miami in a playoff spot. Mas also deserves credit for inching forward on plans to build a stadium in Miami, but it’s far from a done deal.

20. Anthony Precourt, Austin FC

Ambition: C

Front Office: B

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: D

Anthony Precourt does seem to be opening the checkbooks a little more with Austin than he did with the Crew. Sebastian Driussi ($7 million), Rodney Redes ($2.75 million), Tomas Pochettino ($2.5 million), and Cecilio Domínguez ($2.75 million) were all acquired for multi-million dollar fees.

However, Alex Ring, who has seen a degradation in his passing ability from 2021, isn’t necessarily the third DP you want to see on a team like this. Claudio Reyna gets some props here for building a roster that’s helped Austin improve in Year 2 and for hitting on Driussi, who is among the leading goalscorers in the league. That said, Pochettino, a former DP, only lasted a single season at Austin and current DP Cecilio Domínguez, who hasn’t been a game-changer on the field, has been caught up in domestic violence allegations.

On the infrastructure front, Q2 Stadium instantly became one of best in MLS when it opened last year. Even with that stadium, Precourt leaves a bad taste in the mouths of MLS fans, who made him the namesake of the Independent Supporters Council’s Wooden Spoon due to his active sabotage of the Crew.

19. Joe Mansueto, Chicago Fire

Ambition: A

Front Office: D

Infrastructure: C

Intangibles: B

Joe Mansueto has been a breath of fresh air for the Chicago Fire, but his place in these rankings reflects the tough job that he has to rebuild the club after Andrew Hauptman’s time owning the team. There are new plans for a training facility. And while there was hope that a move from Bridgeview to downtown and Soldier Field would be a boon for the club, attendance was problematic in 2021

It doesn’t help the business side of the club that the team is not very good. Since Mansueto took over in 2019, he is now on his third coach in Ezra Hendrickson, who doesn’t look like he’s doing much better than Veljko Paunovic or Raphael Wicky. The silver lining is that Mansueto has shown a willingness to spend. In the last year, the Fire have acquired the three most expensive players in club history with Xherdan Shaqiri from Lyon ($7.7 million), Jairo Torres from Atlas ($6 million), and Federico Navarro from Talleres in Argentina ($5 million). But none of that spending will matter if the structural issues aren’t fixed.

18. Jay Sugarman, Philadelphia Union

Ambition: F

Front Office: A

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: C

The only reason Jay Sugarman is so low in these rankings is because he doesn’t spend much on the Philadelphia Union’s first-team roster. The Union do practically everything so well. They have one of the best coaches in the league in Jim Curtin. They have allowed sporting director Ernst Tanner to shape the Union into one of the league’s most unique teams, with a definitive style to boot. They built an academy structure that has become one of the best in MLS. They have a beautiful riverside stadium whose only fault is that it’s not in Philadelphia. 

The only thing that is missing is spending on the level of talent that could bring them from “very good” to “elite”. The Union have only paid a fee over $2 million for a player once in their club history.

17. Carl Lindner, FC Cincinnati

Ambition: B

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: C

When TQL Stadium opened last season, its beauty was just about the only positive thing that you could say about FC Cincinnati. Many of their issues had to do with the fact that the club didn’t have the right people in place – and that starts with the ownership. Alan Koch, while a great USL coach, didn’t seem up to the task in MLS, Ron Jans did a racial slur, and Jaap Stam couldn’t successfully transition from Europe to MLS. 

However in Year 4, Cincinnati have finally become one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, at least partly thanks to new general manager Chris Albright and new manager Pat Noonan. Spending $13 million on Brenner is also a promising sign, especially if Lindner is willing to replicate that spending in the future.

16. Jason Levien & Stephen Kaplan, D.C. United

Ambition: C

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: A

Intangibles: C

D.C. United is in a really weird space right now. The club has not only built Audi Field in D.C., but they’ve also built Segra Field for their USL club in Loudoun Virginia. D.C. has fully embraced the analytics revolution by hiring Lucy Rushton from Atlanta United. But after firing Ben Olsen, Hernan Losada didn’t make it through a second season after players came forward with issues that included major issues about their now-former manager. Like with Cincinnati before they hired Noonan and Albright, D.C.’s priority should be figuring out next steps in terms of management.

15. Bill McGuire, Minnesota United

Ambition: C

Front Office: C

Infrastructure: B

Intangibles: B

Minnesota United has been an average club for a while now. A big reason for that is because Bill McGuire has been unwilling to make changes in his front office. Both sporting director Manny Lagos and manager Adrian Heath have been in their positions since Minnesota’s inaugural season in 2017. Now in Year 6, Minnesota has never placed higher than fourth in their conference and has never made it past the semi-finals in the MLS Cup playoffs.

While privately building Allianz Field was a great accomplishment, some big structural changes may be needed for Minnesota to really progress as a club under McGuire.