One of the biggest and most vocal complaints about the unbalanced schedule used by MLS this season was that there was a certain amount of built-in unfairness. The standard thinking was that the Western Conference was so much stronger that the teams in the East had an inherent advantage when it came to the Supporters' Shield, leading some to go as far as saying that the award had been stripped of its value.
It hasn't quite worked out that way, according to a SB Nation Soccer study of inter-conference games.
As it stands now, the conferences are actually pretty equal, and that's before the unbalanced portion of the schedule has really kicked into gear. Taken as a whole, the East's teams are averaging 1.37 points per game, while the West's are just slightly better at 1.42.
That trend basically holds at the top and bottom of each conference, too.
The top two teams by points, for instance, are in the West, but three of the top 5 are in the East. Conversely, the worst team in the league is in the East, but two of the bottom three are in the West. If the season were to end today, each conference has five of the top 10 teams by points, meaning the five-and-five playoff structure would have worked almost perfectly. In fact, if you were to project the top 10 teams by points per game, the West would actually benefit from the new playoff structure, as the Colorado Rapids would qualify as the fifth team from the West despite being 11th overall.
What's even more telling, though, is how the East and West have fared against one another.
If the conferences were really badly unbalanced, we'd expect to see one dominating the other. Through 70 interconference matches -- 80 percent of the season's eventual total -- the West holds a 29-26-17 advantage with a +1 goal difference. Hardly the kind of dominance that so many predicted, and some of us illustrated was happening at the start of the season. Since the West started out 9-2-0 against the East this year, the tables have basically been turned with the East holding a 24-20-17 advantage as the home games have evened out.
Home is where the points are
Home teams have absolutely dominated the inter-conference games. No matter which conference the team belongs to, they claim an average of 1.84 points and outscore the visitor by nearly .50 goals per game when teams from the other conference visit. While those numbers aren't drastically different for Eastern Conference teams when they play one another, it is a significant bump for Western Conference teams.
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, when Western Conference teams play one another, the home teams are claiming just 1.28 points per game. In other words, they grab more than .50 points per game when they play an Eastern Conference team at home as opposed to when they play one another.
Time changes everything
One of the not-so-surprising findings in our study revealed that teams located in the Central and Mountain timezones seem to be having an easier time with inter-conference play than the teams on the coasts.
While a fair amount of these numbers are fairly explained by the quality of the teams, it is worth noting that teams in the Mountain time zone (the Rapids and RSL) are claiming .40 more points in inter-conference match-ups than they are in all other games. Similarly, the teams in the Central time zone (the Crew, FC Dallas, Dynamo, Fire and Sporting Kansas City) claim .32 more points per game in inter-conference games.
By contrast, Pacific time zone teams underperform by about .1 points and Eastern time zone teams are .32 off their normal pace.
The most obvious possible explanation for this is that longer flights tend to diminish the traveling teams' quality. Not only is there added travel fatigue, but there's usually a lost day of training as well.
Turns out, the data doesn't quite support that theory, though. Regardless of which coast they play on, home teams don't enjoy all that much of an advantage when the visitor has jumped two time zones. Teams on the West Coast (Galaxy, Chivas USA, Earthquakes, Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps) claim 1.67 points per game against teams on the East Coast (Union, Revolution, Red Bulls, Toronto FC, Impact, D.C. United). That's essentially the same as the 1.64 they claim against all other competition.
The East's numbers are downright befuddling, though. Somehow, East Coast teams are doing considerably worse when they host their West Coast counterparts. How much worse? Well, .54 points per game.
Don't overlook the fly-over states
Given that information, it's probably not a huge surprise that Sporting Kansas City, the team that travels less than any other team, has the best record in inter-conference games. Although they've been good against everybody (1.83 points per game overall), they've stepped up their game against the West. They are claiming a league-best 2.22 points per game and have outscored their Western opponents by six goals. Real Salt Lake (1.86) and the Houston Dynamo (1.86) have also improved their play in inter-conference games.
The three worst teams, meanwhile, are all coastal teams. The worst, unsurprisingly, is Toronto FC at .33 points per game in interconference games. The LA Galaxy (.875) and Impact (.875) are the only other teams averaging less than a full point per game in interconference matches.
Not as bad as we thought
At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, it would appear that the Supporters' Shield will retain a good deal of its value for those who cared about it in the first place. No, the schedule is not balanced and there's undeniably some purity lost with that, but the schedules don't seem to be so wildly different as to make them totally incomparable. The reality is that MLS is still a very parity driven league and the unbalanced nature of the schedule seems to do very little to diminish that.