We may be just two weeks into the 2012 MLS season, but it hardly seems too early to declare that the Western Conference is still where the power lies. That's hardly news, of course. In 2011, the top four and five of the top 7 by point total were all from the West. The LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, the West's top two teams, had 12 points more than any team in the East and each of their goal-differences was nine goals better than any team from the other conference.
Going into this year, the general thinking was that while the best teams in the league were probably still in the West, the East was arguably deeper. Again, all the caveats of it still being early and 10 of 11 games having been played at Western teams apply, but right now it simply looks like the East is pretty bad once you get past the top two teams.
In 11 interconference games in 2012, the West holds a commanding 9-2-0 advantage and outscored their Eastern Conference counterparts 20-7. Only one Eastern Conference team has managed to get as much as a point from their Western opponent, with the Houston Dynamo beating expected bottom-dwellers Chivas USA and the San Jose Earthquakes by the identical score of 1-0.
More than the results, it's the way the West has dominated the East. During those 11 games, the Eastern teams have led in just three of them and held the lead for about 80 minutes total. By contrast, Western teams have led for about 514 minutes. Put another way, teams from the West have led for more minutes than teams from the East have been at least tied (514-476).
Among the West's nine wins are six by two goals and four shutouts. Perhaps the most illustrative game was last week between the the Philadelphia Union, who last year were the third best team in the East, and the Colorado Rapids, a team most expect to struggle to finish in the West's top 5. The Rapids won that game despite playing a man down for most of the second half and even scored what turned out to be the winning goal after losing Jeff Larentowicz. Other telling performances came in Real Salt Lake's 2-0 dismantling of the New York Red Bulls, the LA Galaxy's 3-1 handling over D.C. United and the Seattle Sounders' taking care of Toronto FC 3-1. All three of those Eastern Conference teams were expected to be playoff contenders and all three never looked particularly capable of pulling out a point in those games.
This has all helped lead to some rather ridiculous looking standings. As it stands today, a pair of winless teams are tied for third place in the East; the eighth-place team in the West has two more points than the East's third-place team; and the East has combined for 14 points among all 10 teams, even including games they've played against one another.
To be entirely fair to the East, it should be noted that of the 11 interconference games, 10 have been played at the Western team's home. It's also fair to point out that Sporting Kansas City, who many expect to be the East's best team and the one that had the best regular-season record in 2011, has yet to play a Western Conference opponent.
This week should probably provide a better barometer for where the conferences stand in relation to one another. Six of the nine games this week will be interconference and four will be played at Eastern Conference stadiums. Just as importantly all of them will be played between teams with similar preseason expectations.
The week's first match will feature the Sounders hosting the undefeated Dynamo. After waxing TFC last week, the Sounders should get a much more stout test from the Dynamo. Similarly, the Dynamo have yet to play a team as good as the Sounders. The Sounders will be without Mauro Rosales and the Dynamo might not use Brian Ching extensively, but otherwise these are two teams at close to full strength.
The week's final game should also be telling, although it won't be as interesting as it could have been. Sporting Kansas City will host FC Dallas on Sunday in a game that has been robbed of much of its talent. Sporting Kansas City will be without forward Teal Bunbury, who is with the United States U23 national team, and have Aurilien Collin, Graham Zusi and Bobby Convey all listed as probable on their most recent injury report. FC Dallas won't have Brek Shea, Fabian Castillo and Carlos Rodriguez. Shea and Rodriguez are with their respective U23 national teams and Castillo has already been ruled out with a knee injury. They are also likely to be missing David Ferreira, who's nursing an ankle injury.
There's a pretty good chance that Eastern Conference teams will be able to significantly close the points gap this week. At least three Eastern teams should be considered favorites in their games. While that won't disprove the existence of a gap between the two conferences, it would illustrate that it's not as big as the early games made it seem.
In a bigger sense, the potential problems with the unbalanced schedule are more apparent now than ever. Assuming the form holds, the top teams in the East will have a far easier time piling up points toward the Supporters' Shield and claiming homefield advantages in the MLS Cup. Meanwhile, there are bound to be teams from the West who would have had an easier time making the playoffs if they were in the East.
On the flip side, it also puts even more pressure on Western teams to win their home games against the East. So far, that's exactly what they've been doing.