From 2009 to 2011, Major League Soccer’s Western Conference teams enjoyed a clear advantage over their Eastern Conference counterparts.
No one disputed which was the stronger conference during those seasons, and when the West jumped out to a 9-2-0 record against the East to start the 2012 season, well, the imbalance between the two resembled a see-saw with Omar Gonzalez on one side and Joao Plata on the other.
But an unexpected thing happened after that initial burst of Western dominance in 2012: The East rallied. By July of that season, they’d narrowed the gap considerably, pushing back against three seasons of inferiority.
Ten weeks into this season, the conference tables hardly resemble last year’s, with three 2012 Western Conference playoff sides currently on the outside looking in, and second-year expansion team Montreal tied for first in the East.
So how is the inter-conference competition shaping up? With six of this week’s eight games pitting Eastern Conference teams against Western Conference opponents, it’s a good time to check. Has the East narrowed the gap completely, or is the West still the best?
Let’s take a look.
By the Numbers
With their 1-0 win over LA on Sunday night, Houston not only ended a six-game run of futility at the Home Depot Center, they also sent the Eastern Conference to a 2-1-3 Week 10 record against Western opponents.
The East’s winning round drew the season series nearly level – Eastern teams are currently 9-11-9 in 29 games against the West in 2013.
Three of the top five teams in the league based on points-per-game average are from the East (Montreal, Houston, SKC), and six of the top 10 (add New York, Columbus and Philly) are Eastern Conference clubs.
All five teams currently above the playoff dividing line in the East have positive goal differences, while only three of the top five in the West have outscored their opponents thus far this season.
On the other hand, Western Conference teams have produced 1.37 points per game overall, slightly higher than the East’s total-team average of 1.32 points per game, and the league’s two worst goal differences, by far – Chicago’s -8 and D.C.’s minus-nine – both belong to Eastern Conference teams. Further: Three of the bottom five teams, based on points-per-game average, are from the East, including the bottom two (Toronto FC and D.C. United).
Obviously, it’s still early, and many – make that most – teams have been hit by injury woes. But for now, the numbers show that the East is holding its own against the West.
Reading the Tea Leaves
Parity, or competitive balance, has always been a hallmark of MLS, so it’s difficult to gauge teams, especially in the first few months of a season. They could win on the road at a bona fide MLS Cup contender’s stadium, as Portland did against Kansas City last week, then turn around and draw at home against a team that finished out of the playoffs last season, as Portland did this week in a scoreless draw against New England. (The Timbers dominated the game, but failed to take three points.)
Houston followed consecutive 1-1 draws against lower-rung Toronto and injury-hit Colorado with a solid 1-0 win, on the road, over the defending champion LA Galaxy.
Seattle escaped PPL Park with a 2-2 draw against Philadelphia despite missing five injured players and one on a personal leave. (But as Philly fans will be quick to tell you, the Sounders caught a break on a referee’s non-call of a Seattle handball in the box.)
The Red Bulls have scraped out three consecutive wins despite not being at their best in the past two; San Jose, the defending Supporters’ Shield winners, scrambled to tie a depleted second-year Montreal side.
But inconsistencies aside, some general contours are taking shape. The bulk of the teams currently in playoff position are there on merit, not luck. With the exception of Seattle – who have the talent to rise up the table when they get healthy and when they play their games in hand – most teams are finding their level.
With rising contenders Montreal, streaking New York, battle-tested Houston and a Kansas City side about to welcome back Kei Kamara, the East has at least four teams that can stand toe-to-toe with the best the West has to offer.
There’s much to be decided yet, but it’s clear at this point that the East is a doormat no more – and may be poised to end the West’s four-year stranglehold on the MLS Cup.