Lamar Neagle entered Saturday's match against the Eastern Conference-leading Columbus Crew with two career MLS goals. He ended with five, which didn't even include the part he played in a Crew own-goal, in which his cross through the penalty area ate up weary defender Josh Gardner.
Neagle's performance, in many ways, was the perfect illustration of how many seem to feel the Western Conference matches up with the East. Neagle displayed quickness, guile and even a little physicality. The Crew defense looked slow, inept and out of its depth.
In what was billed as a matchup between one of the West's best teams and the top team in the East, the gap in quality and depth couldn't have been more obvious. While it's worth noting that the Crew were playing this match without one of their starting center backs and defensive midfielder and were starting a 28-year-old who had spent the previous four seasons in the USL, they were theoretically, at least, no more short-handed than the Sounders.
Neagle, after all, had started out the season just hoping to make the 30-man roster. He spent last season with the third-division Charleston Battery, didn't make his first MLS start until June 4 and has made just six starts in his MLS career. Yet here he was, still clearly a backup behind Designated Player Alvaro Fernandez, treating the then-ranked No. 3 MLS defense as if it was a bunch of prep school kids.
In fact, of the 11 players who started for the Sounders on Saturday, five of them were not expected to be starters when the season began. Just four of those players even saw the field when the Sounders upset Monterrey in Mexico the previous Tuesday
By the time Neagle and his Sounders teammates were done wiping the floor with the Crew -- a beating so bad that they dropped four spots in the defensive rankings -- there was little doubt left among the general viewing public: The West is far superior to the East.
Of course, taking one game as proof of anything is absurd. Did the Philadelphia Union's six-goal explosion against Toronto FC suddenly make them an offensive juggernaut? Did the Portland Timbers' 3-0 pasting of the Los Angeles Galaxy prove they are Supporters' Shield contenders? Did TFC's victory over Real Salt Lake herald their first playoff run in franchise history? Of course not.
But the Sounders' win over the Crew, as well as the West's 3-1-1 record against the East on Saturday did seem to be part of a growing trend, and I felt it would be worthwhile to dig through some numbers to see if this sense of domination could be quantified in any reasonable way. After sifting through the numbers, I think I can safely say that, yes, the West is the dominant conference; or at least the conference in which the dominant teams play.
The most obvious and easiest thing to do is to simply look at the point totals of Western and Eastern playoff-qualifying teams. The four highest point totals all belong to teams in the West, as do the top 4 PPMs. The Union have a +6 goal-difference, best in the East, but worse than four teams in the West. The Crew have a +1 goal-difference, good for seventh best if they were in the West, but second best in the East. You can make a pretty compelling case of quality based solely on those numbers, but what fun would that be?
Almost immediately, I knew simply looking at the West's record against the East was unlikely to be very telling. The league's worst team is the West's Vancouver Whitecaps and the three of the four worst goal-differences are also owned by Western teams. Beyond that, as bad as the Eastern Conference may seem, five of the 10 teams currently sitting in playoff positions by either total points or points per match are from the East. Since I'm having to tabulate this all by hand, I figured I'd avoid calculations that were unlikely to yield interesting results.
(For what it's worth, USA Today's Sagarain ratings have each team's record against top 4 and top 8 teams. Running those records across every team in each conference, there is no discernible difference between the conferences using that methodology.)
Instead, I chose to focus on those 10 playoff qualifying teams (using PPM as my basis for picking the teams). Again, there's not a huge amount of separation when you just look at how those 10 teams fared against the top 4 teams in the league. The West was particularly dragged down by the Colorado Rapids' zero points against top 4 teams, but Real Salt Lake is the only team in the entire league averaging more than 1.5 PPM against top 4 teams.
You do see a some separation between East and West when you expand to look at records against top 8 teams, though. The West's five playoff teams have a collective PPM of 1.5, while the East's playoff qualifiers are averaging just 1.1 PPM.
What people saw in Saturday's game wasn't just the West dominating the East, it was one of the West's best dominating the team at the top of the East's heap. When people talk about the West's dominance, I think what they really are talking about is this kind of top-level domination.
Looking at the three teams with the best PPMs in each conference and compare their records against their counterparts from the other conference, we see a more obvious gap. The Galaxy, Sounders and FC Dallas have dominated the East to the tune of a collective PPM of 1.88. The Crew, Sporting Kansas City and Union have held their own against the West, but their 1.42 PPM is not nearly as impressive.
(At this point, I'm sure someone will point out that DC United was not sufficiently included in this study. To them, I can only point out that their overall performance simply does not merit inclusion, even if they have been decent against Western teams.)
While a .46 PPM difference is hardly insignificant, it doesn't really scream utterly out-classing. Sure enough, I was able to find some numbers that showcased this almost perfectly. Taking the top 3 teams' records against their equivalents in the other conference, you see a separation that is as clear as a 6-2 anecdote. The West's top 3 have claimed 31 points in 15 matches against the East's top 3, posting a goal-difference of +11. The East's teams have managed just two wins in those 15 matches, just one since April 1.
Under the newest playoff alignment, one of those three underwhelming Eastern Conference teams is very likely to make the MLS Cup. Meanwhile, those three clearly superior Western Conference teams will likely fight it out amongst themselves to determine their one spot.
Seem fair? Probably not. But at least we'll get some "special moments."