While American sports leagues have fluctuated between talent cycles since their respective inceptions, there are reasons to believe that Major League Soccer's Western Conference will reign supreme for at least the foreseeable future.
Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference is so bad that its first-place team, Montreal, would currently sit in eighth in the West.
The Eastern Conference is so bad that early-season frontrunner Toronto just lost at home to Vancouver, and Orlando allowed a staggering 34 shots in its loss to Kansas City on Sunday. The Eastern Conference is so bad that dumpster-fire Columbus is only three points off the postseason spots and six points out of first.
The Eastern Conference is so bad that it’s possible to turn it into the butt of MLS-centric Yo Mama jokes and have material to spare.
The dominion of West over East isn’t a new trend. It’s been that way for years, and has only gotten even more one-sided since the most recent round of MLS expansion.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Observations from the UW Huskies' second practice of the spring
- The Seahawks are moving Damarious Randall to cornerback. Is there still room for Richard Sherman?
- Jarred Kelenic might just be the next big thing, but don't expect the Mariners to call him up right now
- The next Michael Bennett? Kerry Hyder embracing expectations as he comes to Seattle
- Mariners pitcher James Paxton reportedly needs Tommy John surgery
But while American professional sports leagues have fluctuated between talent cycles since their respective inceptions, and salary capped entities tend toward parity and balance, there are reasons to believe that the Western Conference will reign supreme for at least the foreseeable future.
When Kansas City and Houston shifted to the West to make way for expansion clubs New York City FC and Orlando City prior to last season, it meant seven out of the eight teams in attendance from the previous year now called the West home. And while both NYCFC and Orlando have proven impressive draws on their own right, both also missed the playoffs in their inaugural campaigns.
The winners of the past seven MLS Cup championships are all now Western Conference teams, as are 12 of the last 14 finalists. Due to a bizarre crossover play-in round, both Real Salt Lake in 2009 and Colorado in 2010 actually came through the Eastern Conference half of the bracket on their way to the title.
The three winningest coaches in MLS history — Seattle’s Sigi Schmid, L.A.’s Bruce Arena and San Jose’s Dominic Kinnear — all now coach in the West, and Schmid pointed to consistency from the top down as a possible explanation for conference imbalance.
There are correlations between all of these factors, of course. Winning coaches are more likely to keep their jobs, and successful clubs tend to draw more fans. None of that necessarily means that Western Conference hegemony is going to last forever.
“I think it happens in all sports,” Schmid cautioned on Monday. “Look at basketball right now. I know there’s Cavaliers fans out there, but when you look at the West with the Spurs, Oklahoma City and the Warriors, they’re much stronger.”
In the NBA, though, it’s easier to pick out sleeping giants that could quickly tilt the balance back in the Eastern Conference’s direction, from the dysfunctional-but-wealthy Knicks to the resurgent Celtics, the South Beach allure of Miami to the lingering mystique of the Jordan-era Bulls.
In MLS, besides TFC finally starting to shrug off an obvious Knicks comparison, there are few teams clearly on the rise. Last year’s pair of expansion clubs show promise, but the leap from potential to consistent contender is a significant one in MLS. Montreal has finally seemed to tap into a passionate market, but what happens when 38-year-old Didier Drogba calls it quits? The Red Bulls have spent big in the past but lingering questions remain about their ownership group.
Major League Soccer’s commitment to parity and bloated playoff system can result in less urgency to improve — all except the very worst teams hover on the fringe of the postseason berths until the final weeks of the season. The increasing irrelevance of the SuperDraft and long-game role of academies offer less of a quick fix than can be found in other sports.
Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl factors in a number of intangibles — from investment in Designated Players and youth academies to soccer-only stadiums and major-league feel — to produce his annual “ambition rankings.” With that caveat that the distinctions are one league observers educated guess and that it’s impossible to qualify “buzz,” his 2016 edition is also top-heavy with Western Conference teams.
Four of the top five teams (L.A., Seattle, Kansas City and Portland with the exception of No. 2 Toronto) and six of the top 10 (No. 8 Vancouver and No. 10 Dallas) reside in the West. Of those outside the top half, Houston, San Jose, Salt Lake and Colorado all at least play in soccer-specific stadiums, which is more than D.C. and New England can say.
The breakneck speed of expansion could shift the dynamic in coming seasons. Two more teams (Atlanta and a TBD partner) enter the league next year, MLS has set a goal of 24 total teams by 2020 and commissioner Don Garber has openly speculated about a 28-team league beyond. Maybe NYCFC will maintain its hot start, Orlando’s new stadium will act as an accelerant and D.C. will finally break ground an one of its own.
For the time being, though, it’s better to have been born lucky into the Eastern Conference than good out West.
– Goal of the week: Kekuta Manneh, Vancouver Whitecaps.
The ‘Caps have surged all the way into third place in the Supporters’ Shield standings with three straight wins. The victory at Toronto was the most impressive and entertaining of them all, a 4-3 thriller headlined by Manneh’s vicious cutback and finish.
– Games to watch in the coming week: New York Red Bulls at New York City FC (Saturday at 12 p.m. PST on FOX), Vancouver at Portland (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN), San Jose at L.A. (Sunday at 4 p.m. on FS1).
|New York City FC||16||1.45||11||4||3||4|
|New England Revolution||13||1.08||12||2||3||7|
|Orlando City SC||11||1.1||10||2||3||5|
|New York Red Bulls||10||0.91||11||3||7||1|
|Columbus Crew SC||10||1||10||2||4||4|
|Vancouver Whitecaps FC||20||1.54||13||6||5||2|
|San Jose Earthquakes||18||1.64||11||5||3||3|
|Real Salt Lake||17||1.7||10||5||3||2|
|Sporting Kansas City||17||1.31||13||5||6||2|
|Seattle Sounders FC||13||1.3||10||4||5||1|