What you need to know

Seattle take down Portland

Thanks to goals from Cristian Roldan and Raúl Ruidíaz, the Sounders beat the Timbers 2-1 at Providence Park to earn their first win over Portland since 2021. Seattle finished the weekend in 10th place in the West, while Portland ended the day in last place.

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Has the West caught up to the East?

Before the season started, we talked about the many reasons the Eastern Conference looked stronger than the West. I felt confident in it. And then you’ll never guess what happened.

Through 11 games, Columbus, Philadelphia, Atlanta United, Orlando City, Nashville and New England are either in Wild Card spots or below the playoff line entirely. Last year, that group of five averaged 1.62 points per game. This year, they’re averaging 1.08.

The only team with an excuse here is Columbus. The rest… 2024 hasn’t been great relative to expectations. Philadelphia and Nashville have forgotten how to defend, Atlanta have either forgotten how to score or forgotten what color their kits are, Orlando City have regressed beyond the mean and New England have swan-dived into a dumpster.

Some Eastern teams have lived up to the bargain. Inter Miami didn’t fulfill the Concacaf part of the deal but have started to make up for it with a historic goal-scoring rate and a lead atop the Supporters’ Shield standings. FC Cincinnati have navigated some roster turnover and are keeping pace with Inter Miami. And the Red Bulls have earned plenty of points despite lacking the defensive solidity we expected.

But if we’re looking at overall conference strength, the East has taken a big hit with a handful of playoff favorites taking major steps backward. That’s not to dismiss the teams currently in playoff spots, but the talent and experience of the favorites suggested they had a higher ceiling than a surprise success story like Toronto and Charlotte. The fact that so few teams have lived up to their potential has us questioning everything.

To be fair, we could say something similar about the West. It’s not quite to the same extent where a handful of favorites have faltered, but that’s really because there were only two favorites. And, well, they’ve both faltered. LAFC have a respectable but underwhelming 18 points in 12 games and Seattle, even after yesterday’s win at Portland, have 13 points through 12 games.

Those two are a solid representation of just how unexpected the current standings are across the board. If we look back at The Mothership’s preseason predictions, teams across the league are, on average, five spots apart from their projected finish in the conference. The lesson as always is that we know nothing about MLS until we’re about 34 games in. Even then, it’s questionable.

There’s enough uncertainty to make us wonder if our Stone Cold Lock of the Century of the Preseason has already come crashing down. The West may not have a Miami or Cincinnati, but they do have multiple teams outpacing expectations. Real Salt Lake look like real contenders and could still have room to add a DP or two this summer depending on their cap space. Minnesota United haven’t even needed DPs to average two points per game this year. The Galaxy have one of the most exciting attacks in the league. And Vancouver and Colorado are solid enough and have enough attacking talent to take points off anyone.

We’re mostly theorizing here though. The only tangible way we can measure conference quality is via head-to-head matchups. There have been 42 cross-conference games so far this season. It’s a decent sample size. And, by our count, the (very) slight edge is in the West.

With 126 possible points on the table, the East has taken 54 and the West has taken 57. That’s not a decisive advantage, but it’s definitely not suggestive of a clear disparity in quality in favor of the East. So far, I’ve been wrong.

So far anyway. Remember, we don’t know anything for certain until about 34 games in. Even then, who really knows? There’s still a chance the favorites in the East get it together, though. The problem is, it’s getting harder by the week to envision how. Columbus are falling into a Concacaf well, and the problems for Philadelphia, Atlanta, Orlando, Nashville and New England all seem genuine. This may just be the kind of year where every team could send out a “WE KEPT RECEIPTS” post featuring the final standings compared to the MLS Season Pass and MLSsoccer.com predictions.

That’s bad news for my mentions. It’s great news for anyone who appreciates the fact that MLS never chooses normal.

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Good luck out there. Spread some holiday cheer.