In Part 1 of this series, we asked, "What's the first thing you think of when you hear the name of each original MLS team?" Basically, with New York City and Orlando City slated to enter the league in 2015, we wanted to find out what each MLS team has become known for during the 18-year history of the league as a teaching point for teams #20 and #21. We didn't have space last week to review the expansion teams, so that's where we'll turn our attention this week.
Not surprisingly, last week we found that the original MLS teams are defined by their on-field performance (for good or bad), their style of play, or their off-field (mis)management (or some combination of all of these). As a quick summary, here are the bumper-sticker phrases I think define each original MLS team's identity (in alphabetical order):
Also In This Series
Also In This Series
1. Colorado Rapids--The average team of MLS.
2. Columbus Crew--A hardworking, blue-collar, Midwestern team.
3. D.C. United--The original MLS super club.
4. FC Dallas--Why aren't they better?
5. LA Galaxy--Sustained excellence.
6. New England Revolution--The hard-luck team of MLS.
7. New York Red Bulls--Futility.
8. San Jose Earthquakes--Great American scorers.
9. Sporting Kansas City--The success of good ownership and a well-conceived rebranding.
Now let's take a look at MLS's surviving expansion teams (Miami Fusion F.C., we barely knew you!). Some have been around for a long time, while others have only recently joined the league. There's less history here to define an identity for some of the expansion teams, but that doesn't mean an identity doesn't exist (again, fair or not), although we'll probably have more disagreement on what those identities are. For the expansion teams, we'll go in the order they entered the league.
10. Chicago Fire (1998)--As the original expansion team, Chicago set the bar very high for performance right out of the gate by winning the domestic double in their first season under coach Bob Bradley (an inspired coaching hire if there ever was one when they lured away the former D.C. United assistant). Chicago has gone on to win four additional trophies (one Supporters' Shield and three more US Open Cups), giving them six total (third most in MLS history behind only D.C. United and the LA Galaxy). But, when I think of Chicago I think of their "hardcore Section 8 fans". Chicago's dedicated, passionate, pyrotechnic-burning, "fiiiiirrrrre"-chanting, ownership-clashing, ultra fans.
11. Chivas USA (2005)--It's easy to quickly think, "The dumpster fire of MLS", when you hear the name Chivas USA. And while I think that is the Goats' current identity, it also unfairly characterizes their entire history (these identities, unfortunately, aren't about fairness). It's hard to recall now, but Chivas has won in the past (a four-year stretch of playoff appearances started by Bob Bradley), they averaged almost 20,000 fans one year, they have a dedicated core of fans, and their initial branding as a US-based subsidiary of a major foreign soccer team seemed hopeful at the time (looking at you, NYCFC). Today, however, any of these historical positives have been washed aside by ownership mismanagement and apparent apathy, charges of racism, on-going losing, and plummeting attendance. The Los Angeles Clippers have proven that a second team can survive and even have moments of success in the shadow (and the same building) of a LA superpower, but Chivas seems light years from success at this point.
12. Real Salt Lake (2005)--When I think of RSL, I think of "the best managed team in MLS". Since Jason Kreis became coach in 2007, Real Salt Lake has won an MLS Cup, come in second in the Supporters' Shield, made the finals of CONCACAF's Champions League, hosted the final of the US Open Cup, and lost another MLS Cup final in 10 rounds of penalty kicks. They've done all this despite being a small-market and middle-of-the-pack payroll team. But, at every turn since 2007, they seem to have made the right decisions, whether that was promoting Jason Kreis from player to coach, instituting a strong (and attractive playing) style, making wise player decisions, jumping on a brilliant song written by a fan to adopt it as the most-recognizable team anthem in American soccer, etc. How they deal with the loss of Jason Kreis will be critical to seeing whether they remain the best managed team in MLS in the next few years. Because, if they're not careful, "losing big finals" may become their identity (but at least they're good enough to play in those games!).
13. Houston Dynamo (2006)--No team in MLS is more defined by one man than Houston. The only coach the Dynamo have ever known, Dominic Kinnear and the players from the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston after the 2005 season (leaving the history, records, and lineage of the Earthquakes behind). Continuing the outstanding form they had shown over the past five years in the Bay Area, the Dynamos immediately won two consecutive MLS Cups, and have since lost two additional MLS Cup finals. Kinnear plays with a strong (if not attractive) style, and knows how to have his team peaking just as the playoffs hit, giving his team the identify of being "the most dangerous playoff team in MLS".
14. Toronto FC (2007)--Toronto has a ton of advantages that make you think the Reds should be an enormously successful team: playing in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in North America and Canada's most populous city, having a large and dedicated fan base, and being part of a multi-billion dollar sports conglomerate. But, despite all this, Toronto FC has squandered their opportunities and never reached the MLS playoffs in their seven seasons in the league (but, they are beasts north of the border having won four Canadian Championships!). With eight coaches in seven years, and constant front office change as well (hello Kevin Payne, goodbye Kevin Payne), including big shifts in intended playing style, Toronto has become "the most over-managed franchise in MLS". Perhaps the hiring of Tim Leiweke as President and CEO of MLSE may result in some stability (and success) for this sleeping giant of a team.
15. Seattle Sounders (2009)--Say the words Seattle Sounders and I immediately think, "massive attendance". Some fans of the Rave Green may object to this being the defining identity of their favorite team, but they shouldn't, because in the words of an old adage, "Quantity has a quality all its own." We can debate all we want about who has the best fans in MLS, and even what the term "best" means, but when over 44,000 fans are willing to shell out real money week in, mid-week out to see the Sounders play, it means something. First, it means the Sounders average more than double the attendance of the next best-attended team (the LA Galaxy). Second, because ticket revenue continues to be more important than TV revenue at this point in MLS's history, it means Seattle likely has more resources at their disposal than any other team. Finally, they've had early success having already won three US Open Cups, and their average number of cups won per season played (0.60 cups/season) is third all-time only behind D.C. United (0.72) and the LA Galaxy (0.61). But, converting their tremendous resources into additional cups at that same (or higher) rate will be the challenge for the Sounders going forward.
16. Philadelphia Union (2010)--There are good stories that go along with the founding of the Union. The role of the Sons of Ben in securing an MLS expansion team and the origin of the team's nickname (Zolos) come to mind. But, when I think Philadelphia Union, I think, "What a great bridge!" For a team with only four seasons under their belt (one of which was a playoff season), the iconic view of PPL Park with the Commodore Barry Bridge in the background is what most defines the Union at this point. And I say keep capitalizing on it because it is the most recognizable stadium view in all of MLS. Come up with an alternate jersey that has something to do with the bridge (although the Union's current third jersey that pays homage to Bethlehem Steel is superb), develop an alternate logo that incorporates the bridge, have another nickname that is bridge-related (e.g. the Commodores, the Bridgemen, or the Bridge Crew which is already used by a supporter's group). At some point, Philadelphia will have enough on-field history to develop another identity (and right now, "team that likes to kick others in the shin" is leading), but until then, I say embrace the bridge!
17. Vancouver Whitecaps (2011)--Of all 19 teams currently in MLS, the Whitecaps are the one with the least-defined identity in my mind. They have a great logo that represents their beautiful city, and a long soccer history that predates MLS. They've played three seasons in the league, and made the playoffs once. But, what I think of when I hear their name is that they have "the best non-soccer-specific stadium in MLS". Considering that $514M (yes, million) was spent to renovate the stadium a few years ago, I hope it's even nicer in person (that's truly a staggering number). Their stadium, BC Place, seats 54,000+ for Canadian football, but through the use of large sheets of material that are pulled down to cover the upper level, the stadium feels appropriate for its soccer seating of 21,000. Don Garber has been quoted as saying a new NFL stadium in Atlanta could have a very original method for cutting down the seating for soccer matches. Whatever that means, Atlanta would be doing great to do it better than they do it in Vancouver.
18. Portland Timbers (2011)--Portland is one of a handful of MLS cities whose fan culture predates in a very clear way the team's arrival in MLS. The Timbers originally came to Portland in 1975, and teams bearing that name developed a unique fan culture long before the Timbers entered MLS just three seasons ago. When I watch the Timbers play, I think they have "the most unique soccer culture in MLS". From the huge Timbers Army, to Timber Joey and his distinctive goal celebration, to the songs and cheers they sing, and their quirky but cool stadium, the game atmosphere in Portland looks different and authentic and awesome. I don't want their traditions for my team, because they wouldn't fit outside the context of Portland, but I'm glad they are a part of MLS. With Caleb Porter now their coach, I would buy stock and go long on the Timbers if it were possible to do so. Now, can we just get grass at JELD-WEN?
19. Montreal Impact (2012)--Although the Impact have only been in the league for two years, they already have convinced me they are "the would-be Europeans of MLS". And in many ways, this makes for a consistent narrative. First, for Americans in particular, Montreal feels more European than any other major city in the US or Canada. Second, despite the commonly accepted wisdom that importing European coaches, aging European superstars,and European methods isn't the path to success in MLS, that's exactly the strategy that Montreal pursued last year. Third, how many Serie A/B/C jokes were made about the strong influence Italian players had on the Impact this past season? Finally, shouldn't the Impact's terrific third jersey, which coincidentally looks a lot like Inter Milan's, become their primary kit?
So what will you be known for, New York City FC and Orlando City SC? One of you is the offspring of two of the biggest spending megateams in global sports, while the other is a grassroots success story in a southeast market MLS badly wants into. You're already starting to build your identity now...
Agree? Disagree? Whatever you think, share your thoughts on the identities of MLS's expansion teams below.
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