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

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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.

Watch Live: Swansea City vs. Liverpool (Lineups & Live Stream)

during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Swansea City at Anfield on November 29, 2015 in Liverpool, England.
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Liverpool continues to fight for a top 7 spot as it takes on 15th placed Swansea at the Liberty Stadium live at 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online via NBC Sports Live Extra.

The Reds need a result to ensure themselves a place in European play next year. They’re still in the competition and could make the Champions League by winning the competition, but down 1-0 to Villareal after the first leg of the semifinals midweek, that is by no means a sure thing.

WATCH LIVE: Swansea City vs. Liverpool live online via NBC Sports Live Extra

Despite that, Jurgen Klopp has rested a number of regulars, including goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, replaced by Danny Ward in the youngest-ever starting lineup for Liverpool in the Premier League. One man not rested is Daniel Sturridge starts up front for the Reds.

For Swansea, who sits eight points above the drop on the magic 40-point mark, Andre Ayew starts at the head of the attack, supported by Jefferson Montero, who’s beginning to receive more time after spending all of January and February stuck to the bench.

LINEUPS

Swansea City: Fabianski, Rangel, Amat, Williams, Taylor, Britton, Cork, Sigurdsson, Routledge, Montero, Ayew.
Subs: 
Nordfeldt, Naughton, Fernandez, Ki, Fulton, Barrow, Gomis.

Liverpool: Ward, Clyne, Skrtel, Lovren, Smith, Stewart, Chirivella, Ibe, Ojo, Coutinho, Sturridge.
Subs: 
Mignolet, Benteke, Lallana, Lucas, Brannagan, Teixeira.

MLS Snapshot: Real Salt Lake 2-1 Houston Dynamo (video)

Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando shouts during the second half of an MLS soccer match against the Seattle Sounders Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. Real Salt Lake won 2-0. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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The game in 100 words (or less): Real Salt Lake are tied (with the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas) for the top spot in the Western Conference and in the race for the Supporters’ Shield (with one and two fewer games played, respectively) following 2-1 come-from-behind victory over the bottom-of-the-league Houston Dynamo at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday. Jordan Allen and Yura Movsisyan bagged the goals for RSL, not long after Miranda gave the visitors the game’s first lead nine minutes after halftime. The lasting image of Saturday’s game, as seems to have been the case on about 100 prior occasions, was the late heroics of goalkeeper Nick Rimando (below video).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

15′ — Willis denies Burrito not once, but twice — Joe Willis just would not be beaten by Juan Manuel “El Burrito” Martinez.

54′ — Miranda uses the deflection for the opener — Credit Jamison Olave for the deflection if you must, but failing to deal with the initial ball into the box, followed by Nick Rimando spillage were just as at fault.

62′ — Allen fires past Willis for the equalizer — Likewise, turning the ball over five yards outside your own penalty area is inadvisable. The pass (Justen Glad) and finish (Allen) were clinical.

70′ — Movsisyan turns home the near-post cross — Demar Phillips provided the pinpoint cross, and Movsisyan made no mistake on the finish for a 2-1 lead. This is pretty soccer.

80′ — Rimando’s (double-)Save of the Year candidate — Never retire, Nick . Never, ever, ever, please.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Nick Rimando

Goalscorers: Miranda (54′), Allen (62′), Movsisyan (70′)

MLS Snapshot: New England Revolution 2-2 Orlando City SC (video)

New England Revolution forward Diego Fagundez, right, congratulates forward Juan Agudelo (17) after he scored against Orlando City during the second half of an MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. The Revolution won 3-0. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia
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The game in 100 words (or less): The New England Revolution and Orlando City SC love a 2-2 draw with each other, don’t they? Two weeks after a 2-2 stalemate at the Citrus Bowl, the two sides split four more goals between them on Saturday at Gillette Stadium. Juan Agudelo came off the bench with the game tied 1-1, 70 minutes on the clock, and scored what the Revolution believed to be the winning goal, if not for Carlos Rivas’s 90th-minute equalizer. Le Nguyen bagged a pair of assists on the day, and it’s little surprise that just as he’s getting things going for the season, the Revs have picked up at least a point in five of their last six games. The draw moves the Revs (10 points) up two spots in the Eastern Conference, to seventh, while the Lions started the day in seventh and finish in fourth.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

7′ — Fagundez roofs it for the opener — Lee Nguyen and Diego Fagundez working a one-two inside your penalty area is the last thing you want to see if you’re an opposing goalkeeper. They did it to perfection here, and the Revs had an early lead.

20′ — Revs come up empty in the scramble of all scrambles — How in the world did the ball not find the back of the net here? Unbelievable.

30′ — Molino slots home at the back post for 1-1 — Molino is catching a bit of fire of late, with three goals in his last five games, after missing most of last season with a torn ACL. Right place, right time on this one.

71′ — Agudelo slots home from a cross for 2-1 — Agudelo is finally on the board for 2016, about a month and a half later than you’d have hoped. When he’s on, he’s on and he makes it look so easy.

90′ — Rivas pokes it home in the face of goal — Cyle Larin is usually on the other end of crosses into the box, but the big Canadian showed a surprising combination of speed and chance-creating ability in setting Rivas up for the late equalizer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Lee Nguyen

Goalscorers: Fagundez (7′), Molino (30′), Agudelo (71′), Rivas (90′)

Worker dies after falling ill at Qatar World Cup stadium site

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, workers use heavy machinery at the Al-Wakra Stadium being built for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) World Cup organizers say a worker has died after falling ill on the site of one of the stadiums being constructed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

[ MORE: The latest FIFA news ]

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Saturday that 48-year-old Indian national Jaleshwar Prasad died after he “fell ill on-site around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.”

The statement says that Prasad, who was a steel worker employed on the Al Bayt Stadium project, “received first aid treatment until paramedics arrived. He was transferred to Al Khor Hospital but sadly passed away around 11:30 a.m. Al Khor Hospital reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest.”

It adds that “a full investigation is underway.”

[ MORE: FIFA panel to monitor labor conditions in Qatar ]

Qatar is often criticized by rights groups and trade unions for alleged abuses and deaths on a range of construction projects linked to the 2022 World Cup since it won hosting rights in 2010.

Qatar is relying heavily on construction workers from south Asia.

A FIFA-appointed human rights expert from Harvard University recently advised that tournaments should be moved from countries where abuses persisted.