NEW YORK – NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - In the world of sports, the term "expansion team" has long been synonymous with unflattering terms like "doormat" and "punching bag," to name just a few. The only thing more expected than the excitement of such a club's jazzed-up fan base at the novelty of a professional franchise is its impending last-place finish in the standings.
MLS has done little to change that perception this year - newcomers Portland and Vancouver sit at the bottom of the Western Conference as the season heads into Wednesday night's All-Star game - but the league has significantly distinguished itself from the economic models of other major sports to make sure those teams don't stay there long.
Because of such a unique system, a number of teams have been able to leverage a more equitable playing field and take advantage of a financial framework that fosters parity like no other league to become contenders in a hurry.
"We're a league whose goal is to have equal competitive opportunity," said Todd Durbin, MLS' executive vice president for competition, labor and player relations. "We want all of our teams and all of our fans to know at the beginning of the season that they have an opportunity to be the best team in the league and win MLS Cup."
Never was that more evident than in 1998, when the Chicago Fire won the championship in their inaugural season, a feat unmatched in any other major professional sports league. More recently, MLS has added nine expansion teams since 2005 - with Montreal on the way next year - highlighting the necessity to turn things around quickly.
MLS' socialistic salary foundations help promote such changes.
"In the rest of the world, to a very large extent, it reduces itself to who is spending the most money, and in our world that's not an indication of skill," Durbin added. "What's truly competition is when everybody is using the same resources to go out and try to build a winning team."
One way to create such a competitive balance is to level the pitch, so to speak, which starts by squeezing 18-30 players within a relatively tidy budget of $2,675,000 for player salaries. In that group, no single player makes less than $42,000 or more than $335,000 against the budget.
Those dollars come from a pool filled by all owners under a single-entity structure, but the numbers do have some flexibility.
A team can sign up to three designated players - the first two, at no cost, the third, for a $250,000 league fee - and get charged the max sum of the budget while paying the remainder of the contract itself. Other players, mostly youngsters, are salary exempt until they get reclassified as full-time players by MLS based on proprietary criteria.
While those rules apply to all clubs, a first-year team has the added opportunity of being able to utilize undisclosed allocation money wisely, while finding talent with a high selection in the SuperDraft and supplementing experience via the expansion draft.
Success in each of those areas should make a team competitive almost immediately, and that's exactly what happened with the Seattle Sounders, who won back-to-back U.S. Open Cups while reaching the playoffs in each of their seasons since joining MLS two years ago.
"The cornerstone was to be competitive right away, but to do it with players who still have their best years ahead of them or were entering their good years," said coach Sigi Schmid, who has used 37 players in league play since 2009 - four more than last-place Toronto has used this year alone.
Schmid's experience in MLS is one reason for the Sounders' impressive start. He's guided teams to four MLS Cup finals, winning one with Los Angeles and Columbus.
"Understanding the salary cap and how that works is something that is really important because it helps you to better identify players," Schmid said. "You're able to approach players, especially international players, and you give them realism at the start because they have this view that everyone is going to get paid like David Beckham."
Beckham is due $6.5 million in guaranteed compensation this season by Los Angeles, but he - and the six other players in MLS making $1 million or more, according to the MLS players' union - is clearly the exception to the rule. Because for every megastar like Beckham, Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry, there is a team that is nearly as successful as this year's Galaxy or New York Red Bulls due to its combination of scouting and strategy.
Seattle's roster is still populated by players who made it a winner in its first year. Forward Fredy Montero (international signing), goalkeeper Kasey Keller (allocation), defender Jeff Parke (expansion draft) and midfielder Steve Zakuani (SuperDraft) were each acquired through different methods.
Due to that continuity, combined with a strong fan base, the Sounders are also a hit at the gate with sellout crowds every game, much like newcomers Vancouver and Portland. The results on the field, however, have been much different.
The Timbers' potential is obvious with a 5-4-1 home record, while the Whitecaps own the fewest points overall and seem destined to miss the playoffs with a roster that has an average age under 25. Portland has just one of 26 players over the age of 30: 33-year-old backup goalkeeper Adin Brown.
"We wanted to get as competitive as we possibly could," Timbers coach John Spencer said. "I think a little bit of a handicap from this expansion year compared to others was that there were two expansion teams, so the talent pool was therefore diluted."
There's no need for Spencer to be too discouraged, though, as turnarounds following tough expansion seasons are hardly unprecedented. High draft picks, combined with additional funds that are allocated to clubs that don't make the playoffs - to help with future costs for designated players and other expenses - level the playing field even more.
The second-year Philadelphia Union serve as a prime example to Portland of what they can soon be, unexpectedly leading the Eastern Conference after falling well short of the playoffs in 2010.
Coach Peter Nowak is the mastermind behind the turnaround and is familiar with winning quickly. He captained the title-winning Fire in '98 and won another championship in his rookie season as coach with D.C. in 2004. Using extra funds helped him add significant pieces for Philadelphia's success, signing goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon to bolster a core that now includes defender Danny Califf (trade), midfielder Brian Carroll (trade) and forwards Sebastien Le Toux (expansion draft) and Danny Mwanga (SuperDraft).
The 40-year-old Mondragon's impact is clear: seven shutouts and a 0.84 goals-against average. He's also the likely starter for MLS against Manchester United in the All-Star game.
"If you can manage to get the core group in the first year or 60-70 percent of it, the group will stay with you over the years," Nowak said. "That's not only Faryd, but he's still playing a big role in the team because he's our captain. He helps pull the strings together in the locker room because, to me, the locker room is more important than just the play on the field."
The reborn San Jose Earthquakes took three seasons before qualifying for the postseason and turned it into a stunning run to the conference finals in 2010. Even MLS' worst expansion class enjoyed a reversal: In 2005, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA gave the league dual versions of the 1962 New York Mets, combining to go 9-44-8.
Four years later, a revamped RSL was hoisting the MLS Cup and has become a mainstay among the elite under coach Jason Kreis. Chivas USA went four consecutive years in the playoffs before falling short last year, leaving rookie coach Robin Fraser to rebuild the team again.
The former RSL assistant has Chivas USA in playoff position.
Toronto is widely known as a success at the box office since 2007, but is still seeking its first playoff berth. The team is perpetually rebuilding, churning out 102 players and six coaches. In an effort to find stability and a playoff spot, the club hired Dutch coach Aron Winter this year in order to install an effective playing system. But that meant more instability due to another roster overhaul that included the midseason acquisition of two designated players in German midfielder Torsten Frings and Dutch forward Danny Koevermans.
Not surprisingly, it is at the bottom of the East with fans likely looking toward 2012 already.
Still, under MLS' system, no team is more than a year away from being a contender. And that's more than the '62 Mets could say.