The West Coast is the "best coast" no more – at least when it comes to conferences as the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs have rolled on.
The West’s consistent dominance through the recent past has been no secret in MLS. Year after year has been riddled with reminders. There are the constant table comparisons to knock down the East's confidence – and make Eastern supporters glad that, so far, the All-Star Game format isn't East vs. West.
There are also the complaints about how much easier it is for Eastern teams to win the Supporters' Shield, since they face easier competition more often. (That last hang-up hasn't held much water, though. The LA Galaxy have still won the Supporters’ Shield a record four times, and Western teams have won three of the past six.)
Just see a few tweets that have summed up perceptions of the two conferences in the last few years:
Funny story: 1st-in-the-East Philadelphia Union (18 points) would be below the line in the West (San Jose, 6th in West, 19 points). #MLS— Heath Waddingham (@RSLTotalMLS) May 23, 2016
The worst team in the West is 4 goals (could be more) better than a team one win from a playoff berth in the East. Yikes MLS.— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) July 24, 2014
Shouldn't the tiebreaker for the Supporters' Shield be that FC Dallas plays in the West?— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) October 26, 2015
Adding to all of that, four of the five teams with the most MLS Cups — including, of course, the Galaxy’s record five— are Western Conference teams, with San Jose, Houston, and Kansas City all tied at two. (Sure, D.C. United have snuck into the top five with four titles of their own, but they're not exactly the best example of Eastern Conference prowess over the past few years.)
Then came the 2017 season – and the East vs. West script has flipped completely.
Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC fueled the talk of the season, breaking the regular-season points record with 69, finishing with a +37 goal difference and solidifying themselves in the conversation for best MLS team of all time. Their success might not be too surprising considering they were MLS Cup runners-up last year, but they're truly a complete team.
Toronto scored a whopping 74 goals and yet Sebastian Giovinco, their top scorer, did not crack top five in the Golden Boot race. He and Jozy Altidore shared plenty of the wealth with 16 and 15 goals respectively, but having their next three top scorers with eight, eight, and seven goals each is no easy feat. They’ve boasted pretty much unstoppable firepower from every angle.
Just behind Toronto, it was all Eastern teams who ended the year in the other four spots in the overall league table: NYCFC (57), Chicago and Atlanta (55), and Columbus Crew SC (54). Thank unbelievably smart spending for much of this boost. Chicago Designated Player Nemanja Nikolic won the Golden Boot, and the addition of Bastian Schweinsteiger undoubtedly kick-started the team to begin the year. Meanwhile all three of Atlanta's big-money players became their top scorers — Josef Martinez alone tallied 19 goals — and of course NYCFC has continued to enjoy an ol’ reliable in David Villa.
They’ve just plain built good rosters, which has helped the East average a better points per game for the first time in five seasons (1.58 to the West’s 1.46).
As for the Western Conference, the ever-dominant LA Galaxy finished dead last in the league with an 8W-18L-8D record. Meanwhile FC Dallas, the 2016 Supporters’ Shield winner and an early-on MLS Cup contender, lost an unbelievable amount of steam, winning just two of their last 15 games, and failing to even make the playoffs. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Finally, it bears mentioning that the Eastern Conference’s expansion team (Atlanta) made the playoffs, while the Western Conference’s (Minnesota) missed out by a whopping 10 points.
The difference in quality and excitement value between the two conferences' playoffs so far has been astounding, too.
From the Red Bulls’ 4-0 win over Chicago in the Knockout Round, to Crew SC’s 4-1 win over NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the East's postseason has boasted goals galore. Even the one single Eastern playoff that did end 0-0, Atlanta vs. Columbus in the Knockout Round, was arguably the best game of the entire season. The match offered brilliant defensive plays — including eight saves alone from Crew SC’s Zack Steffen, and a clearance off the line from Atlanta’s Michael Parkhurst — that had neutral observers like myself hoping for a last-minute rule change that would allow us to see both teams advance to the next round. (Crew SC ultimately advanced on penalties.)
Over in the West, leave aside the Whitecaps’ 5-0 romp over the Earthquakes, which can be chalked up to the fact that the Earthquakes somehow made the playoffs with a -21 goal difference more than anything else. Otherwise, the Western playoffs have been, well, boring. Both semifinal first legs ended 0-0, and the first leg of Seattle-Vancouver saw just one shot on goal during the entire 90 minutes.
Theoretically, either Crew SC or Toronto should be able to beat either Houston or Seattle for MLS Cup. Either East team will have home field advantage, on top of the edge that both their regular season and playoff performances already give them.
We'll see if the trends continue when the postseason resumes with Leg 1 of both series on Tues., Nov. 21 – Columbus Crew SC host Toronto (8 pm ET on ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada), and the Houston Dynamo host the Seattle Sounders (9:30 pm ET on FS1, FOX Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada). But as we’ve seen so many times before, anything can happen.