National Writer: Charles Boehm

East vs. West? Why MLS' conference outlook is unique in 2021

This was supposed to be a pretty straightforward piece, a spring #content perennial: Which of Major League Soccer’s two conferences are the stronger and more competitive? West is best, or beastly East?

Last year I gave the West side a narrow edge, though eventual MLS Cup victors Columbus Crew SC proved emphatic winners over defending champs the Seattle Sounders in the big final.

The short answer in 2021: It’s almost a coin flip. Both conferences have multiple legit title contenders at their top end, and multiple rebuilding projects towards the bottom. To get a reasonable but admittedly unscientific snapshot of the conventional wisdom on this, I ran through the voting panel breakdown of the first edition of the Power Rankings to see how East vs. West stacked up.

Six of the 12 voters, myself included, had an even 5/5 split of East and West in their top 10, while the other six shaded it towards the Atlantic with six East clubs and four West. That was reflected in the final P-Ranks calculations, which break down similarly. So on paper I could argue that the East is a nose ahead.

But look: Thanks to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and MLS’s relentless growth, circumstances are different in 2021 – markedly so, enough to justify a different and deeper kind of conversation here, I believe.

The coronavirus threw last year’s campaign on ice for several months as it swept across the planet, then imposed drastic effects on the competitive format as play gradually resumed with the MLS is Back Tournament and a heavily regionalized league schedule driven by the need for largely day-of-game travel to reduce exposure risks.

Teams in closer geographic proximity got highly familiar with one another, and almost never met their counterparts on the other side of the continent, with the prominent exception of the Canadian teams. Then and now, that trio face unique challenges due to border crossing restrictions and will unfortunately continue to be based in US homes-away-from-home at the start of this season (Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, Toronto in Orlando and Vancouver in Utah), with the Florida teams grouped with the southeastern teams for scheduling purposes.

Most people would say that 2020 wasn’t perfect (and the postseason format was tweaked in recognition of that). But it was the best attainable option, and that was a whole lot better than nothing at all.

The pandemic’s persistence has required a continuation of that mentality – and similar travel logistics – this year. The odd-number addition of expansionists Austin FC, MLS’s 27th club, unbalances things further, while the ongoing, established need to minimize as much as possible everyone’s travel time across these enormous nations endures.

So MLS in 2021 will in some ways resemble the old days of baseball before the advent of inter-league play, back when the AL and NL handled their regular-season schedules like the two separate leagues they once were, with their only competitive matchups coming in the World Series.

This season the 14 Eastern Conference clubs will play six of their nearest opponents (their geographic “pod,” if you like) three times each and the other seven East teams twice each, leaving room for just two cross-conference games each.

Meanwhile 11 members of the 13-team West will play eight of their nearest neighbors three times each, meet the other four West teams twice each and play two cross-conference games each. Inland outliers Colorado and Kansas City will play in a smaller pod that features seven opponents three times each, five opponents twice each and three cross-conference games instead of just two.

Got all that? Are you dizzy yet? If so, spare a thought for the complexity facing the schedule makers. While you catch your breath, here’s what Bob Bradley said about all this when I asked him on Thursday how it affects his players and preparations:

“We learned last year that you just take the games as they come. So this idea of a regional schedule, yeah, every now and then it hits you that ‘man, we just played there, and we're going back again.’ Doesn't always make sense,” said LAFC’s head coach. “But it doesn't work well to spend too much time on that. So the ability to create the right training, go into each game prepared, take lessons from one game and get ready for the next game; in our way of thinking that's the only way to go about things.”

For some footy fans there’s a simple, classic allure to the symmetrical schedules found in most (but not all) leagues in the far smaller nations of Europe, where clubs typically play each other twice per season, once at home and once away. That might be the ideal format for the traditionalists who see the Supporters’ Shield as a more holistic measurement of the regular season’s top performers.

But MLS has been a playoffs league since its conception, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. And we know from past seasons that the huge distances inherent to North America impose heavy additional mileage on teams at the corners of the continent like Vancouver, Montreal and Miami. The pros of an unbalanced schedule lie in the reduction of travel times and accompanying fatigue for players, the cultivation of regional and local rivalries and the amplified head-to-head competition against direct competitors for playoff places.

Some clusters may look tougher than others. The five sides along the Acela Corridor from Boston to D.C. figure to kick each other around pretty ferociously. And the hopes of a resurgence for the LA Galaxy and Whitecaps, for example, will be severely tested by having to face 2020 playoff qualifiers like LAFC, Portland and Seattle three times each.

“A dogfight,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer on Thursday. “You look up and down the West Coast, you look a little bit further inland, I mean they're all good teams. What Robin [Fraser] did with Colorado last year, that's tremendous coaching. Matias [Almeyda] in San Jose, Bob [Bradley] obviously, Greg [Vanney], I mean, again, Greg and I have a little bit of a history back and forth, Seattle and Toronto. There's so many good teams and good coaches in MLS and certainly in the Western Conference. It's going to be a dogfight. Every game is going to be competitive. And I think that's what the league wants.”

So players and supporters will get to see more of the adversaries they love to hate most, and MLS Cup will quite possibly feature two teams facing off for the first time all season. It makes things harder for prognosticators. But that’s the East vs. West that really matters.