East, best: How and why the Eastern Conference is suddenly dominating MLS

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

How did the MLS Western Conference's long-running superiority vanish into thin air?

For the first time in what feels like a decade, the balance of power in MLS has shifted to the East.

Long the little brother to the more powerful Western Conference, the Eastern Conference has somewhat surprisingly flipped the script this season. As noted on MLSsoccer.com earlier this week, Eastern Conference clubs are 51-37-32 with a plus-52 goal differential against their Western counterparts in 2017. With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, the top four clubs in the league standings are all in the East, as are five of the top six.

The LA Galaxy’s demise, Chicago Fire’s rise, Atlanta United’s excellent expansion season and Minnesota United’s first-year struggles are the most glaring reasons behind the power shift. A closer look, however, reveals that much of the reason for the East’s rise comes down to cold, hard cash.

Eastern clubs are spending more than they ever have. According to the salary figures released by the MLS Players’ Union last month, Toronto has the league’s highest payroll, New York City FC is second and Orlando is third. LA, the highest-spending club in the West, is fourth in the league in payroll, followed closely by fifth-place Chicago. And that metric doesn’t account for the millions Atlanta reportedly paid in transfer fees over the past year. If those numbers are considered, the expansion club would be right with TFC as the biggest spenders in MLS.

That’s a change from past seasons, when LA and Seattle, the second biggest spender in the West this year, could be counted on to at least be within range of the highest payroll in MLS. As this season winds to a close, LA is spending more than $8 million less than Toronto and Seattle is over $10 million behind the Supporters’ Shield leaders. The Galaxy is roughly $4 million behind NYCFC, who is spending about $6 million more than the Sounders this season.

LAFC figures to even out that trend a bit next year, putting another big spender in the Western Conference. But it’s not just money that has the East on top. The conference seems to have a marked advantage among head coaches, too.

Look at the Eastern Conference playoff teams. Toronto’s Greg Vanney, NYCFC’s Patrick Vieira, Atlanta’s Tata Martino, Chicago’s Veljko Paunovic, Columbus’ Gregg Berhalter and the New York Red Bulls’ Jesse Marsch are among the most tactically advanced coaches in MLS. They each have their tendencies, but none are married to a certain system. They’re unafraid to make changes when needed, and are bold and creative enough to roll out an unusual formation when it’s called for.

We’ve seen that over the course of the last couple of seasons. Vanney found a very successful 3-5-2 in Toronto late in 2016; Martino is putting on a show with the high press in Atlanta; Vieira has built a dynamic 4-3-3 around David Villa and transitioned smoothly away from Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.

Paunovic has engineered a rags-to-riches turnaround by fitting a few players into somewhat unnatural spots in Chicago; Berhalter has stacked results by showing some flexibility in getting away from his beloved 4-2-3-1; Marsch has the Red Bulls back on track in a rarely seen 3-3-3-1.

Excitingly for fans of the Eastern Conference, all those coaches (besides the 54-year-old Martino) are under 44. It’s not a stretch to think at least a few of them will remain with their current clubs for years to come.

Out West, things look quite different. Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes rightly gets a ton of credit for having his team contend year after year despite their relatively low payroll. It’s hard to find much fault in Brian Schmetzer’s body of work in Seattle, too.

Just about everyone else, however, is either unproven or has some pretty major blemishes on their resume. A lot of shine has worn off Oscar Pareja during FC Dallas’ miserable second half; Vancouver’s Carl Robinson and Portland’s Caleb Porter have yo-yoed in and out of the playoffs over the past few years.

Wilmer Cabrera seems very promising, but has a small sample size in Houston; Mike Petke has overseen an excellent turnaround at RSL, but isn’t exactly considered a master tactician in league circles; Chris Leitch has a worse record in San Jose than Dom Kinnear, who was fired earlier this season.

None of this is to say that the coaches at the bottom of the East are better than those at the bottom of the West. There are questions all over the place in the lower rungs of the league. But the top teams in the East seem to be in better positions with their managers than the top teams out West.

That, along with the vast sums being spent by clubs like Toronto, Atlanta and NYCFC, could keep the balance of power with the Eastern Conference well beyond 2017.

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