We’re living in an era of Western dominance over Major League Soccer.
The Western Conference has won the last four MLS Cups (with three different teams winning titles). All eight of the MLS Cup participants during that four-year run are located west of the Mississippi river. Only two of those eight were from the Eastern Conference at all, with Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids earning Wild Card berths and defeating the best of the Eastern Conference to not only advance to MLS Cup, but eventually to win it.
In addition, the Houston Dynamo squads of 2011 and 2012 were Eastern Conference sides, but the Houston Dynamo of 2010 actually finished 7th out of 8 squads in the West before shifting over to become the Eastern Conference powerhouse of 2011 and 2012.
League-wide speculation suggests that both the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City will end up back in the Western Conference in 2015 when New York City FC and Orlando City SC join the league. So of the 10 MLS Cup participants of the last five seasons (this year included) all 10 are located west of the Mississippi River, and all 10 will probably be Western Conference clubs in 2015.
This difference is even more surprising when you consider the advantages that are afforded to Eastern Conference teams.
The population of the United States is heavily skewed to the Eastern United States. Check out this population density map from CNN. A larger population means a franchise has better sponsorship opportunities, more potential fans (and therefore the potential for higher attendance / ticket prices), and the potential for better local television deals.
One of the hardest aspects of playing in MLS is the travel. It is a lot easier to play two matches a week in England when clubs might fly an hour at most to get to an opponent’s stadium, and may often not fly at all for road matches. In MLS, a one-hour flight is rare for many clubs. It is one of many things that European players often struggle with when they arrive in the league.
Generally speaking, Eastern Conference clubs are closer to one another. Getting from Boston to New York is a lot quicker than getting from Salt Lake to Los Angeles. This serves as a built in advantage for most Eastern Conference clubs.
Generally speaking, the clubs of the Eastern Conference are older than their Western Conference counterparts. The average start year of a Western Conference club is 2003-2004, while it’s 2000-2001 for the Eastern Conference. (I’ve excluded the Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes from this analysis as picking a start date for either is subjective.)
Having more time to get clubs up and running should be a huge advantage. Clubs with a longer history have had a better chance to build up a fan base, relationships with sponsors, organizational culture, academies, etc.
In spite of these advantages, the Western Conference is outperforming the Eastern Conference in virtually every competitive metric. Why is that?
There are a lot of factors that probably play into this. It would take an entire book to list and rate all of them. But here are a few possibilities.
- Newer, more interested owners
- Less time for poor sponsor, fan relationships to develop
- Newer Infrastructure (and cheaper land costs to acquire it)
- Higher cost of living in Eastern markets
- Younger audiences in the West
- Fewer entrenched sports franchises (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL) in West
- Cultural differences (including Hispanic Influence in West)
- Larger market penetration in Western media markets
The good news for East coast franchises is that these things tend to be cyclical. A few years ago, the NBA’s Western Conference was dominant, but now the Eastern Conference is putting the best squads on the floor. The NFL has seen a similar shift from East to West over the last couple of years, too.
The causes and implications the West’s dominance are an open question that deserves more attention and discussion. In contrast, the existence of Western dominance really isn’t up for debate.
RSL fans are hoping that dominance will continue on December 7th.