Photo by ISIphotos.com
Yes, I will admit it. I thought the MLS Western Conference was toast, a collection of speed bumps, a series of rest stops on the way to legitimate soccer in the stronger Eastern Conference. There was a clear gap between the East and West not too long ago, as evidenced by a lop-sided record in favor of the East. That record make it a foregone conclusion that the East would snatch five of the eight playoff spots, with the West settling for three.
Now, don’t be so sure about that.
The West posted an impressive 8-4-4 record against the East in September, including a dominant 5-1-1 mark in the past two weeks. That collective success has helped Western teams close in on their Eastern Conference counterparts for the league’s final playoff spots.
Now, not only has Real Salt Lake moved past D.C. United in the playoff race, giving the West back a fourth playoff spot, but now FC Dallas has pulled to within two points of the New York Red Bulls, the fourth-place team in the East.
Yes, that’s right, the West could wind up with five teams in the playoffs.
So how did this happen? How did the East suddenly slip enough to let the West catch up? There are several factors that have gone into the balance of power in MLS shifting Westward. Here are a few:
Toronto FC collapses, San Jose awakens
Back in June you would have figured TFC to be a potential playoff contender while San Jose was looking capable of setting a league record for futility. How things have changed. TFC has fallen into a horrendous rut, brought on by terrible offense, worsening defense and international call-ups that have made finding consistency near impossible. Now TFC has gone 1-8-5 in its past 14 matches, with the team’s fighting for playoff spots in the West (Real Salt Lake, Chivas USA and FC Dallas) accounting for four of those eight defeats. The team’s in the East’s trailing pack (New York, D.C. United and KC) have accounted for just two of those eight TFC losses).
While Toronto has collapsed, San Jose has gone the other way. Before this past weekend’s loss to Real Salt Lake, the Earthquakes were riding a nine-match unbeaten strike spurred on by a boat-load of new acquisitions. The improved ‘Quakes feasted on Eastern Conference competition during that time, going 3-0-2, while their record against the West during that span was a not-as-impressive 1-0-3.
Chivas USA gets healthy, D.C. United falls apart
Here are two other teams whose fortunes have been reversed in the past two months. When Brad Guzan left Chivas USA for Aston Villa, the Goats looked doomed. Injuries to Ante Razov and Maykel Galindo, coupled with the team’s need for a replacement for Guzan, made it feel like there was little reason for hope on the red side of Home Depot Center.
Then along came that wounded team from Toronto, which faced the Goats twice in a row and gave Chivas USA a pair of vital victories that helped spark the club on a 4-1 run that now has Chivas USA in sole possession of second place in the West (and yes, three of those four wins came against the East).
While Chivas USA was getting healthy and finding form, D.C. has been in shambles. Injuries to Marcelo Gallardo, Fred, and Gonzalo Peralta (among others) have had D.C. scrambling to field a potent lineup and the results haven’t been pretty. After Sunday’s loss to FC Dallas, D.C. United dropped to 0-3-1 for the month of September, with all four matches having come against West opponents.
Rapids say goodbye to Clavijo
When the Colorado Rapids parted ways with Fernando Clavijo in late August, two straight losses following the move made it appear as if the change would do nothing for the struggling squad. That was until September rolled around. Saturday’s 5-4 victory against the Rapids capped a perfect month for Colorado, which went 3-0-1 in September under interim head coach Gary Smith (with wins against Chicago and New York). Now instead of being on the outside of the playoff race, the Rapids head into October tied for third place in the West.
These are just some of the key factors that have gone into the West waking up in time to make things extremely interesting in the final month of the regular season. With as many as four of the league’s eight playoff spots still up for grabs, the West Revival is just what MLS needs to keep interest going in the league as we make our way through the fall.
What do you think of the West revival? Think the West will wind up with five playoff teams? Think East strugglers D.C. and New York will wake up to help the East keep five playoff spots?
Share your thoughts below.