With the Super Bowl now out of the way, it’s time to focus on something even better: the start of the MLS season.
The start of the 2015 MLS season is just over a month away and there’s one story line that will likely dominate the discussion from March into October–the Western Conference.
To say that the Western Conference is stacked is an understatement. Last year, it was a brutal conference just to get into the postseason. Just ask the Portland Timbers, who finished the season with 49 points, a total that might have put them into the playoffs on the Eastern Conference side of the bracket (depending on how the tiebreakers went).
This year, the Western Conference is absolutely stacked with contenders and much more difficult with the addition of the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City, who come over from the east after the latest round of re-alignment. And it’s a pretty safe bet that the winner of this year’s MLS Cup will come from the Western Conference.
Of the last six MLS Cup champions, five of them have come out of the Western Conference, and two of the championship matches featured two Western Conference teams facing off against one another, back when there was a crossover rule. If you count SKC now that they are in the Western Conference, each of the last six league champions have come from the West. Four out of the last five MLS Supporters’ Shield winners, the team with the most points across the entire league at the end of the regular season, have come from the West as well.
And just take a look at the teams that make up the Western Conference as well. There are the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles Galaxy, who will start the season again as popular picks to hoist the cup come December. Seattle boasts of a massive home-field advantage at CenturyLink Field with upwards of at least 40,000 fans at its matches and Los Angeles always seems to roll out a Yankees-style lineup. Then you have Sporting Kansas City now with U.S. National teammers Graham Zusi and Matt Besler and Houston with up-and-coming forward Cubo Torres.
And then really comes the meat of the Western Conference. There’s FC Dallas, who surprised everyone last year by making it to the postseason and field a team that makes opponents work for the three points. Then comes Real Salt Lake, the Portland Timbers and Vancouver WhiteCaps, who are similar in that they don’t really have a bunch of big names, but they are very sound and can certainly pull out a win on any given night. Even the lower teams in the conference, like San Jose and Colorado, are really solid teams in the conference and won’t be easy wins for anybody.
Of course, the Eastern Conference has NYFC, which hopefully in June or July will have legend Frank Lampard on the pitch and Orlando FC could be contenders after being so dominant in the United Soccer League PRO division.
But the east doesn’t have the depth that the west does, and that makes a big difference. I’m willing to bet that there will be teams not make it to the postseason in the Western Conference that would have easily made it had they been in the Eastern Conference.
MLS’ Western Conference will once again be the stronger of the two conferences this year, with the eventual champion coming from the conference. And I wouldn’t put it past anyone that this might be the toughest conference in all of American sports.