On Monday, the Major League Soccer announced its conference realignment structure beginning in 2015. With two additional teams, New York City FC and Orlando City FC joining the fray, the League decided to move Sporting Kansas City and Houston into the Western Conference creating two 10-team divisions.
Now, head coaches on this seaboard won’t be quick to admit it, but a collective sigh across the Eastern Conference was assuredly made given two of the tougher teams in the East will now test their mettle out West. As MLS has increased in its competitive nature – and subsequent popularity – the parity between the teams in both conferences has been scarce.
If you look at the race to the MLS postseason over the past few seasons, the one thing you’ll readily notice is that the race in East has always been a final day dogfight with very little points separating the class of the division from the mid-table teams to even the ones at the bottom at times.
There are many different theories as to why the East teams are so close. One could argue proximity, or trading within conference, but Union interim manager Jim Curtin has a theory all his own – and to be honest, it’s a pretty intuitive one.
“There are different theories,” said Curtin during a recent press conference. “Mine may be a unique one, but I actually think to preseason. When there used to only be 10-12 teams in the league, all the East teams would go down to Florida and we would play each other. And you got so familiar with them because you would play them over and over, three times in the preseason. Then you would play them four times in the regular season. So everybody knew each other so well that there wasn’t really any separation.”
It’s a valid point especially if you look at this season.
Taking part in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic during the preseason along with a bulk of both current and soon to be Eastern Conference opponents, the Union faced Columbus and Toronto FC. In its annual match in Jacksonville, Fla. the club took on its Eastern Conference rival in New York. Additionally, the team held a closed door scrimmage against New England in Deltona, home for the past two seasons for the Union in preseason.
Fast forward to the season, and you’ll find the Union playing Columbus three times this season, New York three times, New England four times and Toronto FC twice in the same week.
Which begs the question…with as many times as MLS' schedule and other events could have these teams playing in season, why are they always finding themselves paired together in preseason tournaments?
Well, Curtin has a theory behind that too.
“The West Coast teams – a lot of them are already in warm climates, train where they normally train and they’re playing minimal games against the others. Again, that’s my own theory on why maybe sometimes we [Eastern Conference teams] beat up on each other and know that’s a little piece of it. It’s not the answer to the question, but you know, the Eastern Conference it’s more of a grind, I guess. It’s less open, I would say.”
Now this theory isn’t as strong as Curtin’s first statement but there is some truth to it.
Teams from the same conference aren’t beating up on each other in the early months. We took a look at philadelphiaunion.com at five of the warmer climate teams in the Western Conference in Seattle, San Jose, Dallas, Los Angeles and the now defunct Chivas USA. Of the five only two traveled away from their friendly confines (San Jose and Seattle) with the latter in the Sounders flying to the Charleston, SC to play two Eastern Conference teams (Houston, D.C. United) along with USL-PRO powerhouse, Charleston Battery. Los Angeles and Chivas played the bulk of its matches at its home training ground while Dallas played a handful of matches in Bradenton Fla. and some in Dallas and even in Dubai – but none against MLS competition.
It’s not an exact science. Merely theories and food for thought in why over the last few seasons, the race in the East has allowed for some nail biting moments.
Again, there is no real one thing to pinpoint,” said Curtin. "[But when you look at the East], the rivalries, it’s a little closer, we’re right on top of each other. Maybe there’s something to that, too – the proximity – maybe, we just know each other a little too well."
Thoughts on the cause of a perennially tight playoff race in the East? Leave it below.
Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org