EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
When it comes to MLS, what’s in a conference?
For clubs, it’s a bit more than just geographic alignment and scheduling details. The fast-growing league’s unbalanced regular-season schedule features home and away matches against all conference foes. This weights the importance of those games in the race for the MLS Cup Playoffs – and adds real significance to the question of whether East or West is the stronger field.
This balance has ebbed and flowed over the years. West teams won eight straight MLS Cup finals from 2009-2016, though in more recent seasons the deeper East was perceived to be a cut above. So which conference will be fiercer in 2020?
I expect it to be the West, and here’s why.
Last year LAFC ran away from the field in the regular season, topping the Western Conference with 16 points to spare between them and their nearest pursuers, the Seattle Sounders, who would take revenge by beating the Californians en route to their second MLS Cup title.
The fortunes of those two ambitious, well-funded, well-rounded clubs illustrates the intensity of the pace being set out West. They’re eager not only to stack up points and chase trophies, but to do so with some style and sizzle as well. Much the same can be said of their respective rivals, the LA Galaxy and Portland Timbers, who have spent significant resources on new acquisitions – Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez being Exhibit A – to bolster their existing talent.
Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United have adopted somewhat less flashy approaches, but fashioned their own sturdy, successful identities and kept pace with Seattle right to the very end in 2019. Both enjoy marked home-field advantages and I expect them to remain tough outs for all comers.
FC Dallas reached nearly the same heights in a transition year under homegrown coach Luchi Gonzalez and look poised to climb further this year. And it seems unlikely that Sporting Kansas City will languish outside the playoff places again this season, given not only the culture they’ve built under manager Peter Vermes but also the club-record fee they splashed out for Mexican striker Alan Pulido.
Questions in the East
There’s certainly an elite in the Eastern Conference as well, it’s just not quite as clear that they’ll separate themselves from the chasing pack so easily in 2020.
NYCFC proved themselves head and shoulders ahead of the rest in the regular season only to faceplant badly in their first postseason match. Now their talented squad is learning the ropes under a new coach, Norwegian Ronny Deila, and faces a rugged start to the campaign thanks to Concacaf Champons League.
After helping usher in a new era of ambition and spending across MLS in their first three seasons, Atlanta United are now in the midst of a dramatic roster overhaul – one that this observer, at least, hasn’t entirely made sense of, and which leaves them with more to prove than if more of their incumbent core had stuck around.
After three MLS Cup final trips in four years, Toronto FC merit a place in the top echelon and spent significant money to bring in Spanish winger Pablo Piatti as their showcase winter signing. The Reds look to me like the East’s best hope for a Shield contender, though their efforts to refresh their team with injections of youth without missing a beat in their pursuit of hardware bear watching.
A step behind that trio stands a pack of contenders who haven’t yet shown us what their full potential looks like. D.C. United, the New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union all booked playoff berths in 2019 and carry relatively well-established identities into the new year; the question is whether they’ve got the strength in depth to hack their way into the upper crust with consistency.
Thanks to president Tim Bezbatchenko’s savvy work over the past two transfer windows, I rate Columbus Crew SC at a similar level to the aforementioned quartet. But the rest of the East carry big questions and will have to show us on the field that they deserve to be considered contenders.
Other factors to consider
One of the MLS Players Association’s top priorities in their recent collective bargaining negotiations with the league was growth in the use of charter flights, and the resulting increase in that aspect of travel in the new CBA could have an immediate impact on East-West competitive balance.
Out West the distances between cities are greater, and Cascadian sides Vancouver and Seattle in particular routinely rack up hefty amounts of air miles compared to their peers each season. More charters will allow for less time in transit and better recovery between games, and that raises the ceiling for performance.
This could also be a real factor for expansion sides Nashville SC – who will travel greater distances as a member of the Western Conference – and Inter Miami, whose far-southeastern geography will require longer flights. Newcomers to MLS often struggle to cope with the demands of the week-to-week grind and this duo’s ability to navigate those challenges will surely impact the extent of resistance they offer to more established adversaries.
Other questions that could affect the East-West comparison:
- Three of this year’s five CCL participants hail from the East: Will that tournament help them hit the ground running this spring, or hit them with a painful hangover?
- What will be the toughest venues to visit in MLS this year? If teams like Atlanta, Colorado, Houston, KC and Miami can maximize factors like climate, altitude and imposing home venues, it could significantly affect their places in the conference races.