For the years, the conventional wisdom has been that the Western Conference was the better one in MLS. But this season, the Eastern Conference has looked like the more competitive side.
Has the conventional wisdom about the West been true? And if so, is the balance really shifting toward the East? Let's break it down:
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The stats show the West's dominance over the years – and how it's shifting
The table above shows the average points per game in each conference over the years.
Sure, anyone who has watched MLS over the years knows the Western Conference looked like the better conference. It was easy enough to see simply by looking at MLS Cups: Of the past 12 MLS titles, 10 have gone to Western Conference teams.
But coming into the 2017 season, the stats backed it up as the Western Conference had beaten the East in average points for the previous four years. Teams in the Western conference consistently ended the season with both more points and a better points-per-game average.
So far, however, through more than a third of the 2017 season, that balance has flipped and the points per game average favors the Eastern Conference. If that holds, the East will have had a higher points per game average for the first time since 2012.
The West is losing powerhouse teams while the East is gaining them
The West has been buoyed by having more top-tier powerhouse teams – the sort of teams known for having superstars and high ambitions. While the Western Conference has boasted powerhouse teams like the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders that have spent large resources and had sustained success over the years, the Eastern Conference has had fewer of those types of teams. The New York Red Bulls have done their part to bring in stars in years past, but few other Eastern Conference teams were doing it.
But the balance of powerhouse teams is shifting in a big way. The LA Galaxy have been off to one of their worst starts in years as they move to a more budget-conscious model and the Seattle Sounders are struggling too. Meanwhile, the East is seeing a new crop of consistent frontrunners, due to expansion and bigger spending in some cases. New York City FC, which joined the league in 2015, are arguably the best team in MLS right now, outperforming everyone in expected goals. Toronto FC, which has seen a resurgence on the heels of major spending on stars like Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, has been the league's most dominant team results-wise, coasting through a six-game winning streak.
While a dominant FC Dallas team remains in exception in the West and Sporting Kansas City's move to the West in 2015 is benefitting the Western Conference season, the East otherwise has teams earning points per game at a faster clip. The best teams in the league are now in the East, and there are more good teams in the East than ever before.
Gary A. VasquezGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The worst teams are now in the West
If the Eastern Conference is taking over the top of the standings, then the West has taken the basement, at least so far this season.
The three worst teams in the entire league on points per game all come from the Western Conference: the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United. Those three teams aren't even averaging one point per game.
For comparison, let's look at the bottom three teams in each conference and their points per game – the Western Conference is listed first:
Last place: Colorado Rapids, 0.64 vs. D.C. United, 1 Second-last: Real Salt Late, 0.85 vs. Montreal Impact, 1.18 Third-last: Minnesota United, 0.92 vs. Atlanta United, 1.36
As you can see, the worst teams in the Western Conference are averaging fewer points per game than the ones in the East. In other words, the worst teams in the West are worse.
What's more, these three bottom Western Conference teams are among the bottom of the entire league in goals scored. D.C. United have been in shambles in the East, with a -10 goal differential. But the goal differentials on the West include Minnesota (-12), Real Salt Lake (-13) and Colorado (-8), three of the worst four goal differentials in MLS this season other than D.C.
So, it's not just that the East is getting better teams – it looks like the West is getting worse ones.
In inter-conference match-ups, the East has the upper-hand this season
When we look at inter-conference matches – that is, matches between East vs. West teams rather than between teams within their own conferences – the East has been dominating in 2017. Over the weekend, the Montreal Impact walloped the Portland Timbers, Atlanta shellacked the Houston Dynamo, and the Philadelphia Union edged out the Colorado Rapids. That doesn't quite fit with the idea that the West should be the better conference.
It's all part of a growing trend this season. Of 50 inter-conference matches, the Eastern Conference teams have won 20 of them while Western Conference teams have won just 13, with the rest being draws. That means that Eastern Conference teams have been picking up points in inter-conference play a whopping 74 percent of the time this season.
The East is scoring more goals and conceding less
But the evidence isn't only limited the win-loss-tie columns. The Eastern Conference has been scoring at a much more impressive clip than in the West. Although both conferences average just about 12 games played, the East has scored 201 total goals this season while the West has scored just 172. That's an average of 18.2 goals scored per Eastern Conference team vs. just 15.6 goals on average per Western Conference team.
This is despite the fact that the Eastern Conference, on the whole, is conceding less goals. Teams in the East have conceded 180 goals so far while teams in the West have conceded 193. The average breaks down to 16.3 goals conceded per Eastern Conference team vs. 17.5 goals conceded per Western Conference team.
To look at it another way, the goal differential of each conference hints at higher overall quality in the East. Just three teams in East have negative goal differentials right now while in the West, six teams do. There's still a lot of the season left to be played, but this suggests less parity and less overall quality.
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY SportsKevin Sousa
Spending is favoring the East more and more
Surprisingly, the Eastern Conference has been out-spending the West for years, but that gap is growing and in 2017, there's the biggest gap in recent times, with East teams outspending West teams by an average of around $2.5 million in base player salaries.
More teams in the East fill the top spots in spending than in the recent past, as teams like the Galaxy and Seattle keep droping down the list. For instance, in 2015, LA was No. 2 overall in spending, according to publicly released payroll data. By 2016, they had dropped to No. 3. This season, they sit at No. 5. It has been a similar trend for Seattle, which went from No. 4 to No. 5 to, this year, No. 7.
This season, the top four teams in total compensation all come out of the Eastern Conference:
1. Toronto - $22.5 million 2. NYCFC - $17.9 million 3. Orlando - $13.2 million 4. Chicago – $13 million
Money clearly hasn't been the deciding factor over the years because the East was out-spending the West, even as the West was performing better. But that gap is growing and it not only may be hurting traditional Western Conference powerhouses, but it may finally be paying off for Eastern Conference teams.
So what does it all mean?
All it really comes down to is which teams will make playoffs and be viable MLS Cup contenders. To that end, it seems teams in the Eastern Conference need to be better this year if they expect to make the playoffs. If the 2017 patterns so far hold through the season, then what may have been a playoff-quality team in years past is going to have a tougher time of breaking past the red line. In the West, the opposite is true, where poorer, less consistent teams are going to be able to make it to the postseason.
There's still enough time left in the season that things could change. So far, though, the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders have both had disappointing seasons – but it might not end up mattering when it comes to making playoffs. That is the power of a weak conference. And for the first time in years, the weak conference appears to be on the West coast.