Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference has been viewed as the poorer relation to its Western counterpart in the past two years. The table looks so bleak for Eastern sides after two rounds of the new season that the last rites are already being administered from legions of onlookers.
Third-placed Chicago Fire have fewer points than eight of the nine Western Conference sides going into this weekend’s games, and 60% of the Eastern teams have yet to get off the mark. Further, the West has emerged victorious in nine of the 11 cross-conference games.
But let’s not be too hasty to decry the competitive balance of MLS’ two divisions. Last year’s statistics don’t support the existence of a gaping chasm in quality, and the schedule has been heavily tilted in favor of the West so far.
Western Conference teams have hosted 10 of those 11 cross-conference games, winning on eight occasions. Houston Dynamo have provided the sole Eastern resistance with road wins at Chivas USA and San Jose Earthquakes. Colorado Rapids picked up three points at Philadelphia Union Sunday in the only game held in the East. That result owed much to an error from goalkeeper Zac MacMath. The unfortunate rookie also set Portland Timbers on their way to a comeback win over Philadelphia in Week One.
Chicago, Toronto F.C. and Columbus Crew have only played once, all on the road. Toronto have already ousted MLS champions Los Angeles Galaxy from the CONCACAF Champions League this month with a deserved 2-1 win at Home Depot Center after surrendering a late goal to tie the first leg 2-2 in Canada.
Home advantage counts for a lot in MLS, particularly in cross-conference battles when the visitors commonly travel across three time zones. Unique environments such as the rarefied air of Salt Lake City and Denver or the sapping, summer humidity of Dallas and Houston provide further obstacles for away teams. Players also have to adjust to varying pitch surfaces from the lush grass of Sporting Livestrong Park to the unruly synthetic turf of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field.
It’s little wonder then that most teams accumulate winning home records. Real Salt Lake won all eight cross-conference games at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2010. Seattle Sounders led the West last year with a 7-1-1 home record against Eastern teams. Houston replicated that feat against Western foes.
The West did hold the edge last year, winning 57 cross-conference games to the East’s 47 wins, with 58 games tied. Western teams went 39-13-29 at home compared to the East’s 34-18-29 record. Better home form from Chicago (2-3-4 against the West) and New England Revolution (2-5-2) would have led to near parity.
So let’s not get too down on the Eastern Conference just yet. Sporting Kansas City and Houston will be among the contenders for MLS Cup again come the end of the year. Aron Winter’s believes are beginning to resonate with his Toronto players while Chicago have made great progress under Frank Klopas.
Dwayne De Rosario’s spark makes D.C. United a more formidable opponent than they were during the first half of last season, and Jesse Marsch’s expansion Montreal Impact have already shown that they won’t be a pushover for any team.
*For the record, the gap was more pronounced in 2010. Western sides won 60 cross-conference clashes to the East’s 35 with 33 games tied. The disparity owed much to the excellent home form of Real Salt Lake, Dallas and Seattle. In the East, a wretched D.C. United team lost six of its eight games against Western rivals and Chicago (1-3-4) again ended with a losing record.