MLS is a strange league to completely understand. Top pundits and analysts at the highest levels can barely grasp all there is to know about it. The roster rules change regularly, salaries aren’t disclosed as per league policy, and we live in an era where a player’s rights were essentially given to a team via a “blind draw”. It’s kind of like an episode of Drew Carey’s Whose Line Is It Anyways, “where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.”
But of all the strange happenings, this season especially, the point gap disparity between teams in the Western Conference and teams in the Eastern Conference seem to stand out as yet another MLS quirk.
Let’s just put this out there: the Eastern Conference is a weird place. But before we look at the East, let’s take a quick look at the West to give us a basis.
Leading the Western Conference is FC Dallas with 44 points, just ahead of the surprising Colorado Rapids with 41 points but have 2 games in hand. RSL, LA, SKC and the Timbers round out the top 6 after 22 weeks, all with over 30 points and a zero or greater goal differential.
Switching gears to the Eastern side of the table, second year NYCFC lead the East with 37 points and a 0 goal differential, just ahead of Toronto FC with 36 points and a +9 goal differential. The most surprising team statistically is the New England Revolution. The Revs currently occupy the 6th and final playoff spot with 26 points although amassing a league worst -11 goal differential.
To put it in perspective, if the Revs were a Western Conference team, they would be sitting in 3rd to last place, just 2 points above the struggling Seattle Sounders and 6 points out of a playoff spot.
Something to consider however isn’t just the difference in quality between East and West, but more importantly, the difference between teams above and below the playoff line in the East. The top 5 teams (NYCFC, TFC, RBNY, the Impact and the Union) all seem to be in decent shape despite relatively poor performance; even the Revs should be doing better based on their roster capabilities. There is a significant drop off between teams currently in a playoff spot and the teams struggling to not finish at the bottom, the MLS Cup runner up surprisingly sitting second last by some margin.
Without getting too in-depth with the number crunching to breakdown it down, the disparity really boils down to three simple factors that most will agree with: league expansion, history, and coaching stability.
Since 2010, 4 of the last 6 teams and the last 3 in a row to join MLS through expansion have been placed into the Eastern Conference. With these new additions, historically strong and well established franchises Houston and Sporting KC were forced into an already talented West while expansion teams usually require a few years to begin to reach their potential.
A stat that really jumps off the page is that 8 of the last 10 MLS Cup Champions have been from Western cities, and the most recent champion from the Eastern Conference (Sporting KC) now finds themselves playing in the West. In addition to the Cup record, there is an element of “keeping up with the Joneses” in the West that until recently wasn’t the case in the East. When free-spending, successful teams with deep pockets like LA, Seattle, and Portland are scheduled to play you more often than teams from the opposite conference, you need to either be extremely savvy with your additions (see RSL) or spend on quality proportionally. An interesting side note however is that 6 of the last 10 Supporters’ Shield Winners have been Eastern Conference teams.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Matthew Doyle of MLSsoccer.com listed his “Mount Rushmore” of MLS coaches as being Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, and Dominic Kinnear, “with Peter Vermes right behind them”. You’d be hard pressed to find a valid point to argue those names notwithstanding the fact that Sigi Schmid has recently parted ways with the Seattle Sounders. On top of the Mount Rushmore selections, the West is filled with smart coaches, although young and relatively inexperienced, like Caleb Porter, Carl Robinson, and Pablo Mastroeni who have managed to become successful and not get fired. Stability seems to be the key.
In the East, not so much, and that’s a major contributing factor.
Take Toronto FC for example. TFC is playing their 10th season in MLS. The Reds have had a revolving door in the manager's office, hiring 9 coaches and firing 8 of them in their decade long history. If having a tenured coach, like many of the teams in the West do, is a hallmark of success, then it should come as no surprise why a team like TFC has only qualified for the playoffs once in their history and have ownership of some of the worst records for futility in league history. Only recently, with continued investment, a competent management team and a coach who does not appear to be fearful for his job, the Reds have turned things around and appear to be on a major upswing.
Toronto FC is just one of the many examples of teams in the East that run through coaches at an alarming rate. See the Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire. Even the “new guys” Orlando City and NYCFC are beginning to follow suit. Both are second year teams, both are already on their second head coach.
So although there is a significant disparity between the West and East that continues to play itself out in the standings and statistics, it appears that some of the major contributing factors that cause it are pretty philosophical and quite frankly aren’t that difficult to figure out.