We’re nearly through MLS Cup Week (though it’s two weeks really, something that seems overkill after banging out two-pers for the early rounds). It’s a deja vu kind of MLS Cup: the same combatants as 2011. Los Angeles and Houston, and the same venue, the Home Depot Center. It’s a dream matchup for Major League Soccer, replete with the usual big names in a stadium built for this kind of pageantry.
While Houston has proven worthy of their place in the Final, let’s take a moment to remember the way it was in 2010. Before the addition of Pacific Northwest foes Portland and Vancouver, the Houston Dynamo was a Western Conference team. Remember when we were talking about an Eastern Conference far behind the West? Nothing has changed. There has not been a pre-2010 Eastern Conference team in the MLS Cup Finals since 2008, when Columbus defeated New York.
One could point out that Houston has not been spectacular in the regular season, but as we all know, MLS doesn’t really care too much about the regular season when it comes to championship credibility. The real importance is placed on a two week tournament that discards an entire season of consistency for one poor match (just ask San Jose). And in that tournament, Houston has been as proficient as any other MLS team, and they were built to run the gauntlet – in the Western Conference.
Houston made sense as the team to move East when MLS brought forth two highly supported Cascadian D2 teams. At 18 teams, there needed to be some balance. Thus the Dynamo changed Conferences, and it has set up a situation where the newcomers have outclassed their new competition. Two seasons, two MLS Cups. The chances of the Dynamo making a Final would be much slimmer if they remained in the Western Conference, that’s certain.
Why must Houston remain in the East? Does it really matter which Conference has 10 teams? I’d like to see Major League Soccer push Houston back to the Western Conference for 2013. Houston and F.C. Dallas are geographic rivals, and with the unbalanced schedule, you’d end up with 5 Texas Derbies every two years (not counting playoffs). It’s also very likely the 20th team will be an East Coast team, facilitating Houston’s return to the West. Just do it now. Make the West 10 teams, and the East 9 teams.
I know that the counterargument is that the East should learn to overcome the Dynamo. If they can’t beat Houston (a relatively mundane team who will probably get smoked by LA on Saturday), what’s to say that D.C. United (or Kansas City? or New York?) wouldn’t get trounced in an MLS Cup Final?
Regardless of whether Houston were to stay in the East or move, there is still a dichotomy in the League. It’s pretty clear that the Western Conference is still miles ahead. The biggest problem in the East seems to be that no teams are all-around solid. Sporting KC lacks scoring punch. Chicago scored goals down the stretch, but their defense and goalkeeping made some major blunders. D.C. United had a chance of being elite if they hadn’t experienced a slew of injuries. And while the Red Bulls have the cash and clout to succeed against their Western counterparts, they are very flighty – solid one week, mental the next.
What the Eastern Conference contenders need is to find the ways to become the complete package: attack, defense, and most of all, the intangible of winning the big game. The only team that seems to have that immeasurable quality right now is Houston. And unless their counterparts discover it themselves, it might take a Dynamo return to the West to see a traditional Eastern team in the MLS Cup Final.