For the past three years, the gulf between the two MLS conferences has seemingly been as deep as the Grand Canyon. In 2011 and 2012, the East’s representative in MLS Cup was Houston, a convert from the West. The last time MLS Cup featured an original Eastern Conference team was 2008 when two teams from the East played for the championship (those silly meaningless geography days). In discussions of the best teams in MLS, the conversation has naturally gravitated from who would come out of the West.
The dominance makes sense in a number of ways. Los Angeles has taken utmost advantage of the Beckham rule to build a team around superstars who fit in MLS (and darn good coaching doesn’t hurt). Teams like Seattle and Real Salt Lake have excellent management and team building, while coaches like Schellas Hyndman happen to be out West. Indeed, even “lucky” teams like Colorado built their team to maximize their MLS Cup opportunities. In the East, there has been turmoil at the top. The team with the most resources (New York) is also the most unsettled at every level. DC United struggled through bad coaching and management challenges, and had to dive to the deepest depths before seemingly being rebuilt. Dominant teams from the mid-2000s like Columbus and New England got old and didn’t rebuild. New powers like Sporting Kansas City are just now reaching the consistency of Western Conference teams. And Houston has been the class of the East but struggles in the regular season.
However, the 2013 season looks to be the year when the East catches up to the West. Consider the offseason of the “best” teams in the West:
- Los Angeles – probably still has the most talent but lost midfield dynamo Beckham and has an unsettled Donovan. They also still lack a quality forward to go with Keane.
- Seattle - After years of coming close, the team is cap restricted and looking to tweak their roster. They need to replace Fredy Montero’s occasional production and just got saddled with Shalrie Joseph’s contract.
- Real Salt Lake – Another team looking to tweak a formula that’s gone a little stale, and it remains to be seen if their moves will pay off.
- San Jose - You can’t discount any team with Wondo but they lost some quality contributors this offseason.
- FC Dallas - The offense looks really good but there are a TON of question marks in the back
- Vancouver - A team with a number of questions despite a playoff run last year.
Now take a look at what will probably be the contenders in the East:
- New York - Same old Red Bulls, but they’ve added some quality parts, still have Henry and Cahill, and are sitting on a DP slot.
- Sporting Kansas City - They’ve lost some talent but with their 4-3-3 are still one of the most dangerous teams in the league. Plus they have Graham Zusi who is still improving.
- Houston - They haven’t lost much and are a year older. Even if they don’t finish first, they are made for the playoffs.
- DC United - If the Ruiz signing works out, this team on paper has very few weaknesses
- Chicago Fire - If Dilly Duka provides some consistent offense, they are a quality forward away from arguably being the most complete team in the East.
- Columbus Crew - If they can defend, their offense will carry this team up the table.
While preseason predictions and teams on paper can crumble in the August heat, in the snows of February the East looks like it has multiple, serious MLS Cup contenders for the first time in a few year, at least as many who arguably have very good chances to lift the Cup from the West.