As the halfway point of the 2016 MLS season rounds into view after a pause for the Copa America, this season is looking as hard to predict as any other.
One prediction that was easy to make, however, was that the Colorado Rapids would beat the Chicago Fire when play resumed two weeks ago. They duly did, and their 2-1 win cemented their perch at the top of the Western Conference, at least for a short period. (They now sit a point back of Dallas, but with two games in hand.) Colorado have arguably been the league’s top team this year; Chicago are the league’s worst. It was about as hard of a guess as Argentina choking in another final.
But the result was easy to spot a mile away for another, more fundamental reason: it was a western team playing an eastern term. And, in the MLS, the power has firmly shifted to the Western Conference. As of 4 July, western teams have already amassed a 24-16-17 record against eastern teams this season. Over the past two seasons, western teams have averaged 1.60 points per game (PPG) against their eastern counterparts, while eastern teams could only manage an average of 1.19 PPG against the west. Only half of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference would even make the current postseason cutoff in the West.
The dominance stretches back for a about a decade. Western teams have won nine of the last 11 MLS cups, and seven out of the last 11 US Open Cups. Fans and pundits agree, the west is the better division, and has been for some time now. It’s gotten to the point where every achievement for an eastern team comes with an implied asterisk. ‘Best defense … in the east’; ‘Most goals scored … against weaker opposition’; ‘Best team … in a second-best conference.’
Diehard Eastern Conference supporters (if such a group exists) would point to their conference’s relatively strong Supporters’ Shield record (six out of the last 11) and the fact that they ruled the early period of the MLS. Western Conference fans would counter that it’s always easier to rack up points in a division with the weakest teams, and, with rules like the 35-yard shootout to decide draws and now-defunct teams like the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, perhaps the less said about the formative MLS years the better.
The statistics only tell one part of the story, though. Western teams just appear faster, stronger, more competitive and more tenacious. And with the Frankenstein’s monster that was Chivas USA finally out of the league for a few years, the West has dropped its perennial worst team. The Eastern Conference, meanwhile, has incorporated two new expansion teams, Orlando and NYCFC, that tend to rapidly seesaw from positive to negative.
If number crunching, expansion teams, and league history cannot tell the full story, what can? In a league that sets up byzantine pay structuring and player management bylaws just to ensure parity, how can one conference be running away with it?
“It just comes down to the stability of the guys on the sidelines. That is the main factor in the conference disparity,” Matthew Doyle, a senior editor and the Armchair Analyst for mlssoccer.com told the Guardian. Doyle’s “Mount Rushmore” of MLS coaches would include Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, and Dom Kinnear, with Peter Vermes right below them. They all coach in the West. And it’s not just the old lions of the league strolling to victories based on knowhow and experience. In Oscar Pareja, Carl Robinson, and Caleb Porter the Western Conference has a troika of young, smart coaches that is pushing the established guard all the way.
For Doyle it’s also a cultural problem, with Eastern conference front offices having too itchy of a trigger finger when it comes to hiring and firing coaches. “If you want the one analogy, the one thing that crystallizes it, it’s that the dumb Eastern conference team [New York Red Bulls] fired Bruce Arena and the smart Western conference team [LA Galaxy] hired Bruce Arena. And the smart Western conference team now has five MLS cups, four Supporters’ Shields, and three US Open Cups. It’s pretty easy math.”
One coach who won’t need the lesson is Jason Kreis. Fired by NYC FC after failing to make the playoffs last year, his sacking is indicative of the short-termism that is prevalent in the East. When the Red Bulls and Arena parted ways, it was after he led them to the playoffs and a solid third-place finish in 2007. 2007 also happened to be Kreis’s first year as an MLS coach. His Real Salt Lake team finished dead last in the West that year with the worst goal differential and the most losses of any team in the conference.
But RSL stuck with him and gave him the time to transform them into a consistent playoff team that was hard to beat and pleasing on the eye – just what NYC FC wanted. And while they’ve righted the ship somewhat under Patrick Vieira this season, patchy home form and inconsistent defending show that the learning curve is going to just as hard and just as steep with a big name on the sidelines.
And so when Marco Pappa’s late, deflected strike went in to give Colorado the victory a few weeks ago, Pablo Mastroeni could be found doing his trademark fist-pumps in the dugout. He was relieved that they didn’t drop points at home against the league’s worst team. But he might have been more relieved he was coaching in the West. Colorado finished second-to-last and last in the West the previous two seasons, but they continued to stick with Mastroeni. Now they’re top. They might fade, and Mastroeni might very well prove to be a tactically naïve coach riding a gritty streak, but, at least in the West, we’ll have the time to find out. And the East might want to learn from that.
This article was written by Gideon Nachman, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th July 2016 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010