By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 9, 2018) US Soccer Players - It’s largely a matter of circumstance that the balance of power in MLS is titled so decidedly in favor of the Eastern Conference. Geography should have nothing to do with success. Nothing about operating a professional soccer club depends on what constitutes “east” and “west" in the United States and Canada. Playoffs require a split, but it could've just as easily been American and National like in baseball and football. Or the old three conference model that MLS used when it was a smaller league.
In other words, what we have here is a lack of meaningful commonality. Instead, the East’s rise to prominence is largely about individual club ambition, individual managerial competence, and the inexplicable way North American sports leagues sometimes see one half of the competition dominate the other. An NFC team won every Super Bowl from 1985 until 1997. Geography certainly doesn’t explain that. Neither does it explain why the Western Conference was so clearly better for more than a decade of MLS history.
So how does the West catch up and regain their spot as the better conference? If such a thing is possible, it might come from an escalation in spending and ambition as clubs from the upper Midwest to the Pacific coast try to engage in the new MLS arms race. Money is not always a predictor of success in MLS. However, it does correlate to a greater chance of reaching the postseason and winning once there. The league’s changing cap rules and willingness to let ownership groups spend beyond the budget had heightened differences between the “haves” and “have nots”, though those labels don’t properly encapsulate the situation.
It’s more accurate to say that clubs are “wills” and “will nots” if we take into account the resources available to individual ownership groups. The Eastern Conference is stronger because its clubs have owners with deep pockets like Arthur Blank, City Football Group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment who are willing to invest more heavily in their teams at a time when revenues aren’t likely to keep pace with the outlay. While it’s true that several of those clubs reside in big markets and should have the benefits that come with them, MLS is not a league where market size has ever truly mattered when it comes to results.
That may be changing. Perhaps 2017 was the line in the sand. There’s still a good argument that the West simply suffers from a group of owners who are unwilling to be as aggressive as their Eastern counterparts.
Seattle remains among the league’s highest spenders on player salaries. That's thanks in large part to the big crowds they attract, setting the bar for everyone else in the conference. After years as the club that set the pace on salaries and ushered in the DP era with the signing of David Beckham, the Galaxy fell flat with a mixed approach last year. They can be expected to flex their financial muscle in a big way again, whatever the current thinking about budgets in Carson.
From there, “will” gets a little dicey. There are plenty of rich investor/operators in the Western Conference, but that's no indication of a willingness to spend. The Colorado Rapids and Arsenal share the same principle investor, but the Rapids aren't likely to spend Arsenal level money on anything. The San Jose Earthquakes have a stadium, but they're not challenging in the Designated Player market. The Whitecaps investor/operators have billions, but again that doesn't necessarily mean much for the team on the field. Continue down the list of the Western Conference teams, and it's versions of the same old story in this league. Spending vs trying to win on a budget.
The early returns on Minnesota United have them comfortably on that list. No Designated Players last season, and they don't look like starting 2018 with a big money incoming transfer.
LAFC should add another ambitious and big-spending club to the mix. Considering the LA market, the team had no choice but to spend big and quickly. Thanks in part to the financial power of a horde of investors, the team has already splashed dollars on a marquee DP (Carlos Vela) and the reportedly $4m transfer fee for a talented young South American, midfielder Diego Rossi.
For the time being, the East’s lead on the West is probably more about ambition and investment than it is about market size. If current trends continue, however, the ability of teams to generate revenue will play a larger and larger role in how much they are willing to spend. The size of a club’s market will be a stronger indicator of “haves” and “have nots”.
What this means is that West may have a very difficult time catching the East and returning things to the previous order. There are simply more big cities, and a bigger share of the new energy expansion club in big cities, in the Eastern Conference. Speaking only about the sum total of each conference’s ability to compete, that matters. Any switch of power will have to lean heavily on teams in the West, and more than a few, signing up the smarter soccer people, using more creative methods for maximizing talent, and finding new tactical wrinkles to exploit. That's not going to be easy in a league that's more competitive across the board than ever.
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