The Western Conference and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Game

Perusing the Internet one mid-December day, the MLS offseason creeping its way along, I caught this interaction on Twitter.

Merritt Paulson, often vitriolic and always entertaining owner of the Portland Timbers, getting shtick from a couple MLS fans. The tweet itself was in reaction to DC and Toronto’s early offseason moves, and bears even more relevance now after the signing frenzy the Union went on. Several below-par teams in the Eastern Conference have made moves to really bridge the gap between them and the blue-chippers in New York and Kansas City. Now, anyone who follows Merritt on Twitter knows that a squabble with opposing fans is not news. What’s more interesting in this case is the immediate dismissal of Paulson’s assumption that the Western Conference was stronger than the Eastern Conference last year. This gulf was a little more pronounced in previous years than it might have been in 2013, but by the reaction of these two supporters, it’s as if Paulson just advocated Oguchi Onyewu making the World Cup team as a forward (somewhere Sigi Schmid just started scribbling down ideas).

But who is right in this argument? Paulson, the Western-team owner, or these East-leaning supporters? First off, the question of intra-conference strength will always plague MLS when it gives an award for best overall record while having teams play their conference teams three times in the regular season, and each team from the other conference just once. One conference will always be stronger than the other, making it more difficult for teams from the stronger conference to win the Supporter’s Shield. If more good teams are beating up on each other in one conference and the other conference has only two really quality teams (like, for example, the Red Bulls and Sporting KC) playing weaker teams week in and week out, it stands to reason that one of those two teams have a better chance at the Shield.

On the other hand, the Eastern Conference teams absolutely dominated in the silverware department last year, winning the North American triumvirate of the Canadian Championship, the Open Cup, and MLS Cup, with the Supporter’s Shield to boot. It would seem that by sheer force of championship winning, the Eastern Conference actually comes out on top in the conference strength discussion. When the 2014/15 CONCACAF Champions League rolls around, there will be at least three teams from the East playing (Kansas City, DC, and New York), while only one Western Conference team so far (Portland) will be joining them.

For the sake of this argument and your time reading this, I’m going to completely ignore the Cup tournament results for now. The Canadian Championship only has three MLS (see: remotely good) squads that compete in it, two being in the East, and I’m not willing to place the merit of an entire conference on two teams that did not make MLS playoffs and one that made it into the last spot, only to be bounced in the first round. The Open Cup and MLS Cup playoffs might prove more fruitful to the argument if they weren’t split into Western and Eastern Divisions. No disrespect to DC and SKC’s respective wins over Salt Lake, but a one-off championship game is not a big enough sample to gauge the strength of your conference. Instead, we’ll specifically crunch the numbers on Eastern and Western teams playing each other during the MLS regular season. In inter-conference play, each team plays every team from the opposite conference one time. Ninety inter-conference games were played in 2013, and luckily for me all of the results are readily available on MLS’s website. I tallied up points just like points would be tallied for a regular team, three points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss. After a couple of caffeinated beverages and far too much Internet time logged, the results looked like this:







In short, Western Conference teams pasted their Eastern Counterparts over the course of the regular season, posting 41 wins to the Eastern Conference’s 27, while 22 contests ended in a draw. MLS evened up the inter-conference travel schedule, with 45 games occurring in the East and 45 in the West.

By these numbers, the West is the stronger conference of the two. This throws into doubt how deserving the Red Bulls were in winning the Supporter’s Shield, seeing as in general the weaker teams in their conference were far weaker than the bottom-feeders in the West (and let’s face it. They lost to Chivas at home). It also makes Portland and Salt Lake’s regular season accomplishments that much more impressive, that they remained in the hunt for the Supporter’s Shield until the last day of the regular season despite facing stronger competition than New York or Kansas City on a more regular basis.

But how then do you explain the silverware? Merritt Paulson pointed out how the Eastern Conference was weak in general. But those who called him out were actually pointing to a far different problem: the West could not finish last year. Despite remaining dominant over the East during the regular season, they could not pull out one championship over the course of three cup finals. Salt Lake even had two cracks at it. The Western Conference teams just couldn’t get it done during the one game that really mattered. With the East apparently getting stronger at least on paper, the hierarchy of MLS could drastically change in 2014, and that doesn’t bode well for the West if their playoff struggles continue. Besides, even if the West was stronger than the East last season, I guarantee every single team there would trade their conference strength for a big, shiny trophy. Because at the end of the day, does anything else really matter? It certainly doesn’t look like it.

Alright guys, I don't believe I have to say this but, just in case, please do not submit anything racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise not appropriate for even the younger Timbers fans.

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