Houston Dynamo v Sporting Kansas City - Eastern Conference Semifinals

How stacked can the West get? In three years, MLS’s conferences will be much more uneven


It’s not a universally held opinion, but I’ve made no secret about my evaluation: There is an unfair imbalance in MLS, one which gives the top Eastern Conference teams an unfair advantage. Over the past few seasons, the West has been a much tougher, much deeper conference. Combined with the unbalanced schedule, that means the Supporters’ Shield and home field advantage are more likely to end up with the East’s leaders, a team likely to have played a weaker schedule.

If that’s the situation now, imagine what happens if Houston moves back to the Western Conference. Or if, in 2017, Sporting Kansas City follows. That’s the future the latest round of expansion offers.

The conferences are currently uneven, with an extra team residing in the 10-club Eastern Conference. When New York City FC joins the league, it’s assumed Houston will move West, but what happens when Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando all come in? At least one other team will have to move West, leaving 12 teams in the East. That team will likely be Kansas City.

If that happens, every team that’s appeared in the last five MLS Cup finals will be in the West, and while you could argue these things run in cycles, the success of Real Salt Lake suggests otherwise. Seattle has never had a bad season. The LA Galaxy has been a rock since Bruce Arena came to town, while Houston and Sporting have been consistently good under their current management teams. Time will catch up to each of those squads, but when you look at the rebuild the Dynamo undertook four years ago and the reshuffle RSL engineered last season, it’s worth wondering whether, at this point in MLS history, good management can transcend traditional sports cycles.

If you were to make a list of the best front offices in Major League Soccer, Real Salt Lake, Sporting, Seattle and LA would probably be near the top, as would Houston’s. Each organization, over a prolonged period of time, has shown the ability to address problems, usually without a debilitating impact on the field. In a few years, all of those groups will be competing against each other in the West, further compounding the league’s imbalance.

source: AP
Under the guidance of general manager/owner Adrian Hanauer (right), Seattle has never failed to make the postseason. (Photo: AP)

Once they’re there, trying to beat each other to playoff spots, the problem will only get worse. Already strong front offices will be forced to find new, more efficient ways to beat heighten competition. The result will be better teams, better organizations, all in one conference.

Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution. For competition’s sake, MLS needs to stop the unfair practice of giving home field for MLS Cup  to the team with the better regular season record, instead alternating between Eastern and Western Conference venues. But the league can’t forego realignment. If you are going to have conferences (and MLS seems destined to have conferences), you have to break it up by region.

Eastern Conference teams need to improve. Organizations like Toronto and Columbus appear to be going so. With potentially ambitions teams like Atlanta, Miami, New York City, and Orlando joining the fold, maybe new blood will change the culture. Maybe that influx of competition will force teams to step up. Regardless, the imbalance won’t last forever.

In the interim, the West will remain the tougher group, with the competition set to get brutal once Houston and Sporting move over. Maybe that strength will cycle out, or maybe the league’s best planners will end up grouped together, forced to fight through a stacked conference until the league finds its balance.

MLS Snapshot: Orlando City SC 2-1 Montreal Impact

Cyle Larin, Orlando City SC

The game in 100 words (or less): For weeks, it was a widely held belief that the Montreal Impact would snatch up the sixth and final playoff place in the Eastern Conference with little or no resistance from their opposition. As they went six games unbeaten (four wins), all looked to be setting up perfect for the club that fired Frank Klopas midseason, but there was another team in the race for sixth that kept winning themselves: Orlando City SC. On Saturday night, Montreal and Orlando City faced off at the Citrus, with the expansion Lions claiming their fourth-straight victory with a 2-1 triumph. Montreal now holds a one-point lead on Orlando in the race for sixth, and have two games in hand, but it’s no longer a foregone conclusion L’Impact will qualify for the playoffs no resistance whatsoever.

[ MORE: | Week 30 TOTW | POTW ]

Three moments that mattered

33′ — Bush’s mistake gifts Larin the opening goal — Larin did what your taught to do as a striker — “put it on frame, test the goalkeeper” — but in no universe does a shot so feeble have any business finding the back of the net. Evan Bush has been great this year. Hopefully (for Montreal’s sake), this howler doesn’t turn into the yips with the playoffs looming.

43′ — Hall’s “mistake” gifts Oduro an equalizer — Dominic Oduro equalized in the 43rd minute, when he took the ball out of the hands of Tally Hall and smashed it into the back of the net, but the goal should have been disallowed due to Hall having full control of the ball.

80′ — Hines hits the winner for Orlando — Seb Hines put the ball back into the mixer and just so happened to find the back of the net in the 80th minute. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

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Man of the match: Seb Hines

Goalscorers: Larin (33′), Oduro (43′), Hines (80′)

MLS Snapshot: NY Red Bulls 2-1 Columbus Crew SC

Bradley Wright-Phillips, New York Red Bulls
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The game in 100 words (or less): Two weeks in a row Columbus Crew SC have had a chance to go top of the Eastern Conference with a victory, and two weeks in a row Crew SC have failed to take a single point from massively important fixtures. Their latest defeat, a 2-1 humbling at the hands of the East-leading New York Red Bulls, started so well for Gregg Berhalter’s side, but was undone by a pair of costly, comedic defensive errors that allowed Lloyd Sam and Bradley Wright-Phillips (15th of the season) to erase an early deficit (Justin Meram) and win all three points. The result not only keeps the Red Bulls top of the East, but gives them a three- and four-point cushion with three and two games in hand on their nearest competitors., D.C. United and New England Revoltion respectively. For Crew SC, they’re four points back of the Red Bulls in fourth place, one point ahead of fifth-place Toronto FC, who have a game in hand.

[ MORE: | Week 30 TOTW | POTW ]

Three moments that mattered

9′ — Meram pokes it past Robles for an early lead — Meram “earned” his goal all the way back in midfield, when the Iraqi international’s mazy run took a routine turnover inside Crew SC’s defensive half and turned it into a dangerous counter-attacking opportunity. Harrison Afful overlapped and provided the cross for Meram to send home.

12′ — Sam capitalizes on multiple mistakes to equalize — Crew SC pass the ball out of the back. They don’t boot it forward to clear. It’s just what they do. Sometimes, that’ll bite you. When your goalkeeper and right back both have blunders clearing the ball 10 seconds apart, you probably deserve to concede an ugly, scrappy goal.

21′ — Wright-Phillips capitalizes on more defensive gaffes — See the above description for Red Bulls goal no. 1.

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Man of the match: Damien Perrinelle

Goalscorers: Meram (9′), Sam (12′), Wright-Phillips (21′)