Analyzing why the MLS Western Conference has been best

MLS Cup - 2015 - Jair Marrufo blows the whistle and Timbers celebrate while Crew sad

Whether it’s the 7 of the previous 11 MLS Cup titles going to the Western Conference or a general belief, it seems the old adage holds: West is best in MLS. But is this fact?

Statistically speaking, yes the West outperformed the East. Aggregating the total points earned per conference over their counterpart (excluding intra-conference play) for the 2015 and 2016 regular seasons shows that the West earned 1.60 points per game (222 total points) compared to the East’s 1.19 PPG (165 total points).

Is it possible to identify what was happening on the pitch that made the West superior to the East? To compare the two conferences, we aggregated the total number of actions for a host of metrics during the 2015 regular season and then calculated the ratio of output per conference. Seeing how the MLS has been in constant flux in term of conference allocation, we felt this previous season was most telling in gauging the current state of the inter-conference rivalry.

The following analysis was done through Week 12 of the 2016 Major League Soccer season. 

2015-16 Inter-Conference Games

Points Per Game
Western Conference
Eastern Conference

Contrary to our expectations, the results show that the East commanded higher levels of possession, boasted stronger passing accuracy numbers in the opposition’s half, and generated more efficient passes ending in the final third. Considering the playing philosophies of the New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC, New York City FC, and Orlando City, the narrative is not hard to follow, although it is surprising that the offensive proficiency in the East has not resulted in more parity.

Analyzing why the MLS Western Conference has been best -

Furthermore, the East’s style of play enabled them to open up greater channels for penetrating forward passes further up the pitch, thus reaping the benefits in terms of greater chances created from open play, shots inside the box, and goals scored. Whereas the East created more chances overall, the West was actually marginally more creative from set pieces. Still, this is not what one would expect given the West’s points superiority in overall match-ups.

Analyzing why the MLS Western Conference has been best -

Stepping away from the aesthetics of the beautiful game, we analyzed defensive performance. Since the 2015 season, the West engaged in more actions denoting physical play such as duels, blocks, and tackles.

Analyzing why the MLS Western Conference has been best -

The key takeaway – whereas the Eastern conference has boasted stronger offensive numbers and savvy ball movement, the Western Conference exhibited a balanced level of offensive output with stronger defensive prowess in the shape of: fewer goals conceded, fewer shots on target faced, more clean sheets and winning a greater number of 50-50 battles.

It’s important to note that we are not saying the West is more defensive than the East. Simply put, the West has performed better defensively than the East.

This is just one piece of the puzzle explaining Western superiority in MLS. Is that to say that a strong defense is more significant than a great offense when looking at success? More analysis would have to be done, to determine the point at which conceding fewer goals outweighs goals scored in terms of generating points. That's one for another time.

Nikolai Staugaard Eriksen contributed to this article.