West is better than East, in some ways

By Ridge Mahoney

A glance at the MLS conference standings reveals one discrepancy right away: the Western teams have more wins and more points.

Starting off with the first-place teams, both of which have played 28 of their 34 regular-season games, most Western teams have better records than their Eastern rivals in the same slot. Vancouver (15-10-3) is the overall points leader with 48 and a per-game average of 1.71; Eastern leader D.C. United (13-10-5) is doing well but not as well with 44 points and a 1.57 points-per-game.

Second place is the exception. The Red Bulls (12-7-6) have compiled 42 points in 25 games for a per game average of 1.68. The Galaxy (13-8-7) has more points, 46, a slightly inferior points-per-game mark of 1.64.

The most glaring difference is the cutoff line for the playoffs, which in 2015 is sixth place. In the West, a three-way logjam at 41 points of Seattle, Sporting Kansas City and Portland fills the slots in fourth, fifth, and sixth. Those teams have 10 more points than sixth-place Montreal, which has played the fewest games of any team (24), yet with 1.29 points per game still lags behind Seattle and Portland (1.46) and Sporting KC (1.58).

So it is below the playoff line as well. The Quakes (11-11-5) are seventh in the West with 38 points and are well ahead of the similarly place Union (8-14-6, 30 points). The four worst records in the league belong to Eastern teams (Philly, New York City FC, Orlando City SC, and Chicago).

Overall by conference here’s how the numbers stack up:

-- Western Conference 399 points in 272 games. Points per game average: 1.47.
-- Eastern Conference: 349 points in 268 games. Points-per-game average: 1.30.

So it’s easy to assume the Western teams are better and the only question is one of degree. But because of the unbalanced schedule mandated by MLS, embedded in these comparisons are factors that erode statistical validity.

Teams do not play all of their intraconference rivals the same number of games nor is there a head-to-head balance of home and away games. (Seattle plays its third game of the season against San Jose Saturday at Avaya Stadium; it has hosted, and lost, the first two). And teams play just one game against teams from the other conference, rather than home and away.

Western teams do prevail more often in head-to-head meetings with Eastern teams, but “dominance” is too strong a term. “Superiority” applies.

Through 88 interconference games, the Western teams have won 43 and tied 17, which equates to them accruing 55 percent of the available 264 points. That’s a significant difference but hardly overwhelming.

Some teams have certainly piled up points against the East: FC Dallas (6-2-1), Sporting Kansas City (6-1-2), and Seattle (6-4-0) lead the pack, and Portland (5-3-0) and Vancouver (5-3-1) have also done well. The only Eastern teams with winning records against the West are Montreal (4-3-0) and Orlando City (4-3-2), and the Impact still has to play Colorado, San Jose and the Galaxy, all on the road. Two of those games were pushed back from early in the season to assist Montreal’s preparation for the Concacaf Champions League knockout round.

Both expansion teams have struggled and are drifting below the playoff zone, but their performances against the Western Conference are starkly different. The Lions are 4-3-2 and that record includes victories at Houston and Portland. New York City FC, on the other hand, has been dismal. It is 0-5-2 while scoring just three goals and conceding 13. NYC also has three more matches against the West: two on the road (FC Dallas and Vancouver), and one at home (San Jose).

So stripping away those expansion records to more accurately the relative strength of the conferences doesn’t change the numbers all that much. Interconference games account for 29.4 percent (100 of 340) of a full season of games, and while 100 games is a reasonable sample size, the fact teams play each other only once, rather than home and away, lessens the value of direct comparisons.

The stats suggest that a lousy team, like Chicago, is lousy across the board. Yet it’s worse against the West (2-7-1) than within its own conference (5-7-5). Both of its interconference wins were at home (against FC Dallas and Seattle), and in its five road games it lost four and tied one (Houston).

WESTERN TEAMS STRONG AT HOME. If there’s a dominant variable comparing East vs. West, it is in the games played in Western cities. In those 44 games Western teams are 28-7-9 and have accumulated 70.5 percent of available points (93 of 132). Eastern teams at home (21-15-8) have earned only 53.8 percent (71 of 132). Eastern teams, despite gaining time zones when they travel west, haven’t fared as well as counterparts going in the other direction.

You can fine-tune this analysis even further. Nine of the 10 Eastern Conference teams are in the Eastern time zone – Chicago is the exception – and so their travel burden playing Western teams depends in part on which five they play on the road. Travel for Columbus, which is closer to Chicago than its other conference foes, isn’t as onerous as for Northeast teams or Orlando City. The shortest trip for the Lions is the 793-mile trek to Columbus, but a “Western” trip to Houston is only slightly farther away (849 miles). After the 2014 season, Houston and SKC moved back to the Western Conference to make room in the Eastern loop for the expansion teams.

Just think where the struggling Sounders would be without their home games against the East. They’ve swept all five of them, which accounts for 15 of their 41 points (13-13-2) in the standings. They were 1-4-0 in Eastern cities, with the only away victory a 3-1 triumph over New York City FC in Yankee Stadium.

Seattle is not the only team to cash in at home against the East. The Galaxy is a perfect four-for-four (Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto FC, New York City FC) heading into its last game against an Eastern team Saturday against Montreal. Combined scores: 16-2. Of that quartet only TFC looks like a playoff team. Sporting Kansas City (4-0-1), FC Dallas (3-0-1), and Real Salt Lake (2-0-3) have also avoided defeat at home against Eastern teams.

Matching up results and records doesn’t account for factors such as which MLS games are played with international players missing because of callups, or which games are played on a weekend after one of the teams played in midweek, or at the end of a busy stretch such as five games in 15 days that might include matches in other competitions such as the Concacaf Champions League or U.S. Open Cup.  So you get results like Orlando pasting the Galaxy, 4-0, or Portland losing, 3-0, in Philly, or D.C. and RSL combining for 10 goals (D.C. won, 6-4).

Only if the league played a balanced schedule could there be a valid comparison of the relative strength of the conferences. But that won’t stop the discussions and debates about East vs. West.

2 comments about "West is better than East, in some ways".
  1. Allan Lindh, September 11, 2015 at 4:37 p.m.

    Since MLS changes the playoff recipe almost every year, why not change it again to something that puts these questions to rest.
    1. Best eight teams go into playoff
    2. Seeding on points
    3. All ties two game home&home series, including MLS cup.
    Then we would get quality soccer, quality TV, better TV ratings, more money etc. Since the East now has at least as many deep pocket teams as West, actually more, would be fair.

  2. Nels Hanson replied, September 14, 2015 at 8:51 a.m.

    They've already done something similar. Didn't stop the lowest seed (NYRB) from making the final.

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