Expansion, big spending, smart bosses: How the West lost its edge in MLS

USA TODAY Sports-Brett Davis

Major League Soccer has long been ruled by the Western Conference, but there's a clear power shift in 2017.

For nearly a decade, Major League Soccer has tilted West.

Over the past nine years, the top teams in MLS have consistently come from the Western Conference. Just two current Eastern Conference teams have won MLS Cup since 1999 – D.C. United in 2004 and the 2008 Columbus Crew. Sporting Kansas City was in the Eastern Conference when it won in 2013, but has since moved to the West.

Inter-conference play has been dominated by the West since 2009, and in each of the past four seasons, the West has had at least four of the top six teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Halfway through this season, however, we’ve started to see a change in the balance of power. The Eastern Conference is 31-20-21 this season against the West. A quick look at the Supporters’ Shield standings shows four Eastern Conference teams in the top six, including the top three teams: Chicago, Toronto and New York City FC.

The East teams have qualified people in top jobs right now that are getting things together.

- Fernando Clavijo

There look to be two major reasons for the dramatic shift. The first is expansion, which has seen three high-spending clubs come into the Eastern Conference and find success rather quickly: Orlando City, NYCFC and Atlanta United. In addition, the Western Conference has seen some traditionally stronger teams go through massive changes either in the front office or within their roster dynamics, with the LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake standing out most among them.

Even the Seattle Sounders changed 13 players from last year’s MLS Cup-winning side.

“I don’t know that the shift is as dramatic as the perception of that [change],” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ve played 18 or 19 games, so after five or six years of the West being stronger, we have half a season of the East being stronger.

“The one obvious [change] is a really strong, high-spending team in Atlanta comes in and that tips it. … The number of truly big-spending clubs has Atlanta, New York City, Toronto in the East, balanced by Seattle, LA Galaxy and then LAFC next year in the West. Long-term, I think the balance is still there, but you could argue that Atlanta coming in a year before LAFC did kind of tip it a little bit.”

Money, as always, runs at the root of things – even in a league like MLS, where a salary cap limits what teams and owners can do.

Chicago, Toronto, NYCFC and Atlanta, the four top teams in the East this season, have all put significant resources into their rosters. Interestingly, the top two teams in the West, FC Dallas and Sporting KC, are known more for a conservative fiscal approach to the first team. With Portland, Seattle and LA all underperforming, and the West also housing three of the league’s worst teams this year in Colorado, RSL and Minnesota United, the East has taken the opportunity to pull ahead.

Both Lagerwey and Dallas technical director Fernando Clavijo pointed to the leadership in the East, with Lagerwey naming Tata Martino, Jason Kreis and Patrick Vieira as three top coaches on newer clubs in the East and Clavijo also looking at the front-office management.

“The East teams have qualified people in top jobs right now that are getting things together,” Clavijo said. “[Philadelphia's] Earnie Stewart came in, he had to learn, he got to know MLS and how things work, and now things are getting up for him. Same thing with Patrick Vieira in New York. Toronto was going up all the time [over the past few seasons].”

USA TODAY Sports-Matt Marton

USA TODAY Sports-Matt Marton

There is no guarantee the East will maintain supremacy, but of the West is in a rebuilding phase.

A team like RSL also has a chance to steady its roster if it can make some savvy choices with its Targeted Allocation Money and Designated Player slots in the winter transfer window. San Jose and Houston have both made major changes and are trying to push their way back into the picture.

The Galaxy and Sounders are both expected to spend money in the upcoming windows and potentially add big-name Designated Players. LAFC enters the league next year and is expected to spend similarly to Atlanta United, which has put out a new blueprint for expansion sides: big transfer fees for young players balanced by steady MLS veterans.

“Anytime you have changes, it takes time to put things into place and then work through it at the same time,” Clavijo said, pointing to the Galaxy as an example. “The same thing with Salt Lake. They had good people before and have good people right now, but it takes time to get those players and front offices to fit into place. It’s not easy. You don’t put it together overnight. You need support and you need to know what you’re doing at the international level and the domestic level. We are a unique league, and it’s not easy to get by in this league without making mistakes.”

The teams at the top of the East, meanwhile, have put together solid programs, and other clubs, like the New York Red Bulls, Orlando City and Columbus, are not far behind. MLS might finally see the balance of power switch back to the East for the first time since D.C. United dominated the league in the early years.

Facebook Live Question of the Week

Every Thursday around noon ET, I host a Facebook Live Q&A on FourFourTwo USA’s Facebook page. Every week, I pick a question from that chat for this column. Come join us on Thursday and ask away!

Julian Alexander - Do you think the Crew can bring in a big star in such a small market?

It may be easier to lure big-name stars to places like New York, LA and Miami – Beckham’s squad won’t have trouble signing stars – but I’m a firm believer that there is really only one big factor when it comes to signing stars: money.

There’s a reason why players end up with clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk, which is located in an industrial town in Ukraine, or Stoke in England or any other unglamorous town, of which there are many, in the soccer world. It’s money. It’s about meeting the right asking price and paying the player enough to make him want to be there.

MLS is growing and so are budgets. Usually, the big-market teams are backed by big-market spenders. That’s ultimately why the stars end up in those cities. But yes, I’m a firm believer Columbus or Kansas City could plop down the right amount of money to bring a star to those smaller cities. It’s ultimately going to come down to whether those ownership groups want or can afford to spend at those levels. But a city like Portland shows that high levels of support and revenue streams can prompt a “smaller market” team to spend millions on player acquisitions.  

The Final Third

Acosta headed to Europe soon?

USA TODAY Sports-Jim Brown

USA TODAY Sports-Jim Brown

FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta may not have had the best Gold Cup so far, but interest remains strong in the 21-year-old.

Said interest may eventually evolve into a transfer offer, but it has not materialized yet. That doesn’t mean FC Dallas isn’t aware of the attention and isn’t preparing for the day it may have to say goodbye to the Homegrown Player. Dallas has proved willing to sell players, whether it was Brek Shea to Stoke City or Fabian Castillo during last year’s summer window.

[Acosta] will probably go to Europe in the next 12 months. We are proud of this. This is something good.

- Fernando Clavijo

Clavijo said he doesn’t envision a similar scenario this year to last, when his team had to adjust to losing a top player during the middle of a trophy-winning season.

“We have knowledge there are some teams around that are interested in one of our players,” Clavijo told FourFourTwo. “We are a team that would like to move players, but at the same time, we need to make sure we are ready to win a championship. We want to win an MLS Cup championship. I don’t say we are not moving forward in making any [transfer], but we’re not looking to make any moves.

“When I say we, the ownership, the players, all of us need to figure out what is the right thing to do right now, depending on the time. We’re so close to December, and we can have everything in place, win a championship and then make a transfer. We prefer to go into the transfer window in January and not July, because it jeopardizes the rest of the team. But we have to be ready to cover that decision.”

Clavijo said the team has to keep in mind how it would move forward if the right offer comes for Acosta soon, however. It sounds like that moment may happen in the next year.

“Kellyn was the first player I signed when I signed here, and now he is playing for the first team and the national team, and he will probably go to Europe in the next 12 months,” Clavijo said. “We are proud of this. This is something good, and it shows that what we are doing here is working and hopefully we can do more. This is our identity.”

Sounders trying to close deals

Press Association

Press Association

It’s never easy to wrap up big transfers, but the Seattle Sounders are hoping to add one to two more players in this summer window, including a potential DP, Lagerwey told FourFourTwo.

Lagerwey didn’t go into specifics about the players or positions, though they’ve been linked Dynamo Kiev’s Derlis Gonzalez.

“We obviously are well down the road on a couple possible deals,” Lagerwey said. “But they’re either signed or they’re not signed, and if they’re not signed, they’re not much good to you.

“Speculating as to what or who to when, it is what it is. You’ve got to have both sides to make a deal, and we learned last year in the Lodeiro transaction that sometimes you’ve just got to be patient.”

A safe bet: USL to Vegas

Brett Lashbrook helped Orlando City make its jump from USL to MLS, overseeing some of the bigger projects during his time in Central Florida, including the club’s “Fill the Bowl” campaign at the start of the season.

He saw firsthand the formula for success at the lower divisions of professional soccer, and it prompted him to dive in headfirst along with his family. Lashbrook will be the owner and president of a USL team in Las Vegas, pending a city council vote for a lease at Cashman Field.  

This is no different from a small- or medium-sized business. It’s all about location, location, location.

- Brett Lashbrook

Lashbrook is optimistic about the chances for success at Cashman, which has a rectangular shape that will allow a 120-by-80-yard field with supporters right up against the action. In addition, the minor league baseball team in Vegas has indicated an intention to move to the suburbs after the 2018 season, which would turn Cashman into a full-time soccer stadium.

“It’s in downtown Vegas, walking distance to bars, restaurants, casinos, nightlife, music venues and the Fremont Street Experience,” Lashbrook said. “I think it’s an absolutely fantastic USL venue in the heart of large metro area, the second-largest metro area in [the] U.S. and Canada without a pro soccer team.

“When you look at the demographics of the sport in this country compared to the demographics of the Las Vegas metro area, and the revitalization of downtown Vegas, I think we’ve found a hidden gem that is going to be at the center of a lot of really cool soccer experiences in the U.S. soccer landscape in the years to come.”

The Vegas team would likely start play in the 2018 season, and it has launched a website that shows a rendering for the soccer stadium at Cashman Field.

Lashbrook’s passion about the potential success for soccer at the lower divisions is clear.

“The growth of game is a pyramid, and as the game grows, the pyramid continues to stretch and it becomes this huge vacuum to fill,” Lashbrook said. “Single-A soccer, AA soccer, AAA soccer. There are plenty of markets where this can work.

“This is no different from a small- or medium-sized business. It’s all about location, location, location. The power of a stadium in the right location and creating that authentic soccer environment, the right-size stadium, the right-size atmosphere in the right part of town, and there’s no reason it can’t be replicated at the Division 2, Division 3 and even Division 4 level in the future.”

Reads of the Week

I loved and hated this doomsday article about the impact of global warming, which goes beyond even just the rising oceans.

Another great recommendation from Bruce McGuire (Give him a follow: @dunord), The New York Times on a small-town police officer’s war on drugs.

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