By Ridge Mahoney
So much buzz is radiating out of the Western Conference, it's leaving the East somewhat under appreciated.
That’s to be expected when only two Eastern teams, Columbus and New York, made the playoffs last year, and neither got past the first round. An all-Western Conference final four can’t recur: the revamped playoff format for 2011 assures at least three Eastern teams of a postseason spot, yet right now, the West still looks dominant, on and off the field.
Expansion additions Portland and Vancouver are selling tickets by the boatload and the Northwest MLS rivalry with Seattle gets underway this week, unofficially, when the Cascadia Summit matches the teams in a round-robin weekend.
Los Angeles is primed in the last season of David Beckham and the first of Juan Pablo Angel; perhaps the most attractive team in the league, FC Dallas, has revamped a team that lost the title game on an overtime own goal; San Jose is building on its playoff breakthrough of 2010; Chivas USA has an ambitious new head coach; and all Rocky Mountain Cup rivals Real Salt Lake and Colorado have done the past two seasons is win the league title.
Over in the East, Sporting Kansas City, which finished seven points out of a playoff spot in third, has added Mexican attacker Omar Bravo. A stronger effort from SKC will certainly bolster the conference, but the two teams that finished at the bottom last year could be the most intriguing teams to watch, as both D.C. United and Philadelphia have taken on forwards of great ability at considerable risk.
D.C. United, which finished as the league’s overall worst team last year, has signed U.S. forward Charlie Davies, whose dramatic back story has laid the foundation to what will be a memorable season, no matter how it turns out. His body has healed from the terrible injuries he suffered in a car crash more than 16 months ago; now begins the restoration of his psyche and his soul.
Somehow, United managed to score only 21 goals in 30 matches last year, and a sharp Davies -- who can benefit from the experience of Josh Wolff as well as the energy of Andy Najar and Chris Pontius and Santino Quaranta -- can give it hopes of garnering points in any game. Doling out the right amount of minutes in the right situations for Davies is a harsh task to throw at any head coach, and Ben Olsen has all of 12 matches under his belt.
Philly has brought back Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz, one of the league’s most prolific and heavily criticized players. He’s only 31, and from 2002 to 2008 he flat-out terrorized defenses playing for the Galaxy and FC Dallas before a move to Toronto FC, which at the time played on artificial turf, didn’t do much for his knees nor his career.
Scorer of 82 goals in 155 regular-season games, and the league’s all-time playoff leader with 16 goals, if Ruiz is healthy and focused, he’ll unhinge defenses with his strength, quickness, finishing, and notorious affinity for diving. He also dealt with some personal issues in Guatemala before he left MLS to play in Paraguay and Mexico; have those issues been resolved with his return to MLS from Greece?
There are other elements at work in the Eastern Conference. Houston missed the playoffs last year yet brings its successful track record of four straight postseason appearances – including two MLS Cups – from 2006 to 2009 with its move from the Western Conference. Its opponent in the 2006 and 2007 championship games, New England, is also rebounding from a playoff miss.
Coach Carlos de los Cobos is back for a second MLS season in Chicago; we’ll see how that works out. The new men in charge of Toronto FC -– head coach Aron Winter and director of player development Paul Mariner – are just getting started but already Dwayne De Rosario seems intent on playing instead of baying, and that’s welcome news for TFC fans.
Spurred by their new goalscorers, Philly and D.C. can exert enough upward pressure to intensify competitive balance. For better or worse, an increased schedule of 34 games and expansion of the playoff field from eight to 10 is likely to keep more teams in the playoff hunt deeper into the season, and potent goalscorers keep their teams in more games.