Jozy Altidore celebrates Toronto FC goal vs. New York Red Bulls, October 30, 2017

The countenance of one man brighten up another / iron sharpen iron
- Joseph Hill, “Iron Sharpening Iron”

A few weeks ago’s Ben Baer crunched the results from the league’s 2017 inter-conference slate, confirming the strength of a season-long trend indicating that the Eastern Conference has surpassed the West in terms of quality, depth and level of play.

It marked the end of a decade-plus pattern of Western dominance spearheaded by perennial trophy-hunters the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, and was duly reflected in the Supporters’ Shield Standings, where winners Toronto FC and the top four finishers behind them all hail from the East. 

Earlier in the year, Caitlin Murray ran a thorough comparison of the conferences for Fox Soccer and found similar signs, noting multiple data points – including spending on salaries, where she ranked East sides TFC, New York City FC, Orlando City and Chicago as the league’s top four this season.

“It seems teams in the Eastern Conference need to be better this year if they expect to make the playoffs,” wrote Murray. “What may have been a playoff-quality team in years past is going to have a tougher time of breaking past the red line.”

West and East teams won’t meet up again until MLS Cup on Dec. 9, of course, and cup finals can be one-off events where most anything can happen, as the shot-on-target-less Sounders famously proved in last year’s edition. So you may be wondering why I’m talking about this now.

Boehm: Crew SC prove the East's supremacy is real, and that matters -

I used to dismiss something as wonky as inter-conference stat-diving as too idiosyncratically MLSian to be worth all that much time and thought. But Columbus Crew SC’s raucous 4-1 ambush of NYCFC on Tuesday night provided a vivid example of why these trends matter in a competition with a weighted schedule and broad geographical scale like Major League Soccer.

Crew SC finished 15 points back of regular-season champs TFC, and are the fifth seed in the East bracket of the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. Yet they would’ve won the West, and if this scintillating three-month, 12-game unbeaten run they’re on extends all the way to the title bout, they would host MLS Cup, no matter who advances from the other side of the bracket. It may be worth noting that 2008 champions Columbus are the only MLS Cup winners of the past 12 years who don't currently reside in the Western Conference.

Crew SC’s relentless mauling of 10-man City on Tuesday confirmed that they are the toast of the postseason at present – buoyed, of course, by the groundswell of passionate fan support linked to their off-field situation. Playoffs past may tempt you to write that up to the whims of a streaky team hitting stride at the right time of year. But they were sharpened to this point by a full campaign’s worth of locking horns with a fierce pack of contenders that exemplifies the league’s new guard.

TFC ran away with the league and may yet prove one of the best teams in its history. NYCFC ran closer to them than anyone and were scintillating for long periods, while the invigorated Fire stormed back to prominence after years of trying torpor. Newcomers Atlanta United hit the scene bold, brash and flashing cash, and quickly wowed everyone in MLS and well beyond it with their fan support, high-test playing style and premium talent. The New York Red Bulls’ pedigree is known, and made them the bottom seed that everyone in the pack feared despite a wobbly regular season.

While the West featured a suddenly sagging dynasty out in LA, hard-luck newcomers Minnesota and a rudderless Colorado Rapids team in a state of transition, both the middle and upper classes of the East were keenly competitive. Only TFC truly separated themselves and the rest scrapped over postseason positioning right up through Decision Day.

Seven of the 11 Eastern teams finished with winning records against Western foes; consider for a moment that even the disappointing Philadelphia Union went 4-2-5. That suggests a rising tide of quality raising all boats.

It’s not a simple race for points, either. The East benefits from outside perspectives from the likes of Tata Martino and Patrick Vieira, tactical innovations like the infectious growth of the high press, Greg Vanney’s 3-5-2 look in Toronto and the palpable ambition, even if unfulfilled of late, found in places like Orlando and Montreal. Iron has sharpened iron.

This is not to say that no such crucible exists out West. But this Crew SC look like a marked upgrade from the version that fell just short of the championship two years ago, and the environment that nudged them to another level deserves some attention, especially amid all the recent furious debate about this country’s wider frameworks of competition. They are a case of what's possible. 

There are lessons to be taken from the East’s rise. And perhaps one of its teams will grab some more hardware along the way.