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How stacked can the West get? In three years, MLS’s conferences will be much more uneven

Apr 17, 2014, 9:03 PM EDT

Houston Dynamo v Sporting Kansas City - Eastern Conference Semifinals Getty Images

It’s not a universally held opinion, but I’ve made no secret about my evaluation: There is an unfair imbalance in MLS, one which gives the top Eastern Conference teams an unfair advantage. Over the past few seasons, the West has been a much tougher, much deeper conference. Combined with the unbalanced schedule, that means the Supporters’ Shield and home field advantage are more likely to end up with the East’s leaders, a team likely to have played a weaker schedule.

If that’s the situation now, imagine what happens if Houston moves back to the Western Conference. Or if, in 2017, Sporting Kansas City follows. That’s the future the latest round of expansion offers.

The conferences are currently uneven, with an extra team residing in the 10-club Eastern Conference. When New York City FC joins the league, it’s assumed Houston will move West, but what happens when Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando all come in? At least one other team will have to move West, leaving 12 teams in the East. That team will likely be Kansas City.

If that happens, every team that’s appeared in the last five MLS Cup finals will be in the West, and while you could argue these things run in cycles, the success of Real Salt Lake suggests otherwise. Seattle has never had a bad season. The LA Galaxy has been a rock since Bruce Arena came to town, while Houston and Sporting have been consistently good under their current management teams. Time will catch up to each of those squads, but when you look at the rebuild the Dynamo undertook four years ago and the reshuffle RSL engineered last season, it’s worth wondering whether, at this point in MLS history, good management can transcend traditional sports cycles.

If you were to make a list of the best front offices in Major League Soccer, Real Salt Lake, Sporting, Seattle and LA would probably be near the top, as would Houston’s. Each organization, over a prolonged period of time, has shown the ability to address problems, usually without a debilitating impact on the field. In a few years, all of those groups will be competing against each other in the West, further compounding the league’s imbalance.

source: AP

Under the guidance of general manager/owner Adrian Hanauer (right), Seattle has never failed to make the postseason. (Photo: AP)

Once they’re there, trying to beat each other to playoff spots, the problem will only get worse. Already strong front offices will be forced to find new, more efficient ways to beat heighten competition. The result will be better teams, better organizations, all in one conference.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution. For competition’s sake, MLS needs to stop the unfair practice of giving home field for MLS Cup  to the team with the better regular season record, instead alternating between Eastern and Western Conference venues. But the league can’t forego realignment. If you are going to have conferences (and MLS seems destined to have conferences), you have to break it up by region.

Eastern Conference teams need to improve. Organizations like Toronto and Columbus appear to be going so. With potentially ambitions teams like Atlanta, Miami, New York City, and Orlando joining the fold, maybe new blood will change the culture. Maybe that influx of competition will force teams to step up. Regardless, the imbalance won’t last forever.

In the interim, the West will remain the tougher group, with the competition set to get brutal once Houston and Sporting move over. Maybe that strength will cycle out, or maybe the league’s best planners will end up grouped together, forced to fight through a stacked conference until the league finds its balance.

  1. crayzeeguy - Apr 17, 2014 at 9:26 PM

    The joke that is the MLS front office will keep dumping money into NY teams until something gives.

    • mlsconvert88888 - Apr 18, 2014 at 12:24 PM

      When I was reading this article, my inner conspiracy theorist was thinking that this is a master plot to ship all of NY’s real competition out of the conference.

  2. khkevin - Apr 17, 2014 at 10:21 PM

    Actually, I like the move of MLS’s top teams into the same conference. This move will promote better competition for each team in the west. Since there will be a lot of really good teams fighting for limited amount of playoff spots, the move will test fan dedication. Some Western Conference teams might not even win an MLS Cup for a long time, yet they have a lot of support.

  3. chunkala - Apr 18, 2014 at 12:36 AM

    Why are there even conferences? Why not ladder-style like in Europe?
    Is it because of the size of USA?

    • talgrath - Apr 18, 2014 at 3:59 AM

      More or less, yes. The drive from the northernmost EPL team (Newcastle) to London is about 3 hours and 15 minutes (remember, the EPL and Scottish leagues are separate), by comparison the further trip in MLS once Miami enters the fray will be Vancouver to Miami, coming in at 50 hours by car. A single table would mean a lot of flying, and a lot of money waste on flying.

      • chunkala - Apr 18, 2014 at 8:53 AM

        Makes sense, thanks.

      • jdfsquared - Apr 18, 2014 at 2:47 PM

        However, and this is to me the crux of the conference issue, the NBA plays across the country with road trips that include multiple one-offs in cities across the country, from Portland to Miami, LA to Boston. Why is it more difficult to schedule and play soccer in that way???

        I know the NBA doesn’t play a balanced schedule, but they also have twice as many games in their season. There’s A LOT of travel. Why can they do it MLS can’t?

      • Sgc - Apr 18, 2014 at 5:44 PM

        @talgrath Even bigger than the mileage is the time zones. One could argue that once you get in a plane and fly 1,000 miles, it doesn’t matter that much if you fly 3,000 miles instead. But if you’re a NY fan, trying to watch the road games on TV, you’re hoping to have as many of them in the Eastern time zone as possible so that they air at a reasonable hour.

        @jdfsquared The answer two your question is two-fold:
        1) Unlimited substitutions.
        2) Between how many games there are and how many teams make the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter if you drop one here and there. Back-to-back games with travel in between are actually notoriously debilitating for NBA teams, but they don’t make that big a stink about it because the good ones can afford to just take a loss now and again and move on.

      • lyleoross - Apr 21, 2014 at 11:14 AM

        The reason it is easier for the NBA to go across the country vs soccer is size, scheduling, and profit. An NBA team is half the size of a soccer team, probably ten times as profitable, and can do road trips where they swing through several cities in a geographical area over a week period. That allows them to control their travel costs in a way that soccer cannot.

  4. lavatomy - Apr 18, 2014 at 2:17 AM

    I don’t get how it’s unfair to give the team with the best record the MLS Cup. They were the best team so they deserve it.

    As far as conferences I don’t get why MLS can’t have a single table with the top 8 clubs going to the playoffs and the following 4 playing a wild card game. That way you really get the best teams going into the playoffs.

    • talgrath - Apr 18, 2014 at 4:03 AM

      Simply put, that’s a lot of cross country travel via plane for a single table league, let’s say each team plays each other once, Miami to Vancouver is a long trip (and expensive too). Aside from that, the idea is also to make sure both east and west are represented in the final, a way of showing that both conferences have good teams and a stake in the league.

    • lunasceiling - Apr 18, 2014 at 1:18 PM

      It may make compelling /logistic sense, but it’s still a drag. Single table is so much better in every other sense. Unbalanced schedules make the Supporter’s Shield meaningless, among other downsides.

  5. talgrath - Apr 18, 2014 at 4:06 AM

    I think it’s a little naive to think the western conference will be the stronger one for more than even a few years. Remember how DC United used to be the league’s top team for years, in great form for years? Now they’re dwelling in the basement of the conference. All it takes is a few bad moves to screw up the squad.

    • Sgc - Apr 18, 2014 at 5:47 PM

      I’m not so sure. The subject of the NBA came up, and what’s REALLY weird to me is that in the NBA, the West is semi-permanently better than the East as well. You might have the best team in the league in a given year be the Heat, but if you look at the top 4 or 5 or 6 seeds, there have not been many years in the last generation where the East as as deep as the West. It’s really getting strange at this point.

      • talgrath - Apr 19, 2014 at 3:33 AM

        Well, that’s not quite true. In recent history, the west has always been stronger than the east, but in the past the NBA (like most sports leagues) was a team dominated by the east; the NBA championship went to teams from the east for a solid 22 years from 1954 to 1976, and really western dominance didn’t settle in until 1999 when Jordan left the Bulls. Admittedly, for the past decade and a half or so the west has, generally speaking, been stronger than the west, but that’s not a guarantee. On a conference wide basis, you’re more or less looking at decades, but on a team basis that fluctuates year to year at times.

      • Sgc - Apr 22, 2014 at 6:21 PM

        Well, you’re right, it’s “only” been since the lat 90s, but that’s a lot of data points. It’s not really 1 per year, but 8 (seeds per each conference), so you’re looking at over 100 playoff teams per conference where the West is notably stronger than the East. Long enough to stand out. . .

  6. overtherepermanently - Apr 18, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    I hope that adding to MLS another NFL owner, with real NFL chops, who actually gives a damn about his soccer club will be enough to influence/shame the Krafts into caring.

  7. 127taringa - Apr 18, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    I think the answer will lie in who invests most in academies. Last time I checked, some of the best were in Dallas, LA, Vancouver and Toronto. Someone please feel free to list the top ranked academies in MLS.
    Regardless of what the new teams spend it will be some time (10 years minimum) before the academies could be used as a strength.
    Another factor could be what MLS does with the rules on use of academies. If the rules favor internal development (which it should) the gap could widen.

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