There is a slight imbalance to the schedule, with each team facing two others within their own Conference an extra time during the regular season. For Seattle these two opponents are the San Jose Earthquakes and CD Chivas USA. Much of the talk around MLS media and blog circles is about how the Eastern Conference is so much better than the Western and that might mean 5 or even 6 Eastern teams in the MLS Cup Playoffs. That talk tends to ignore that the best team in the league is still in the East and a few teams will face it more than twice.
What is intriguing is that last season there were only three teams that passed the 46 point margin, which is significant as it meant that they were basically locks (the magic number is 39/40) and no teams that missed by more than two well placed wins. The league is really that balanced. Parity has its place and in league play that parity is rather obvious for Major League Soccer.
But when a team like Toronto is going to have to face Columbus and New York (48 pt avg in '08) three times each, that changes their playoff chances a lot more than the Quakes and Goats (38 pt avg in '08), that would be most apparent for a league without parity. But in MLS you can't use last year's numbers to show the disparity, so instead I'm going to use Ives' preseason rankings to judge the overall strength of schedule. Again, its only two games, but very few teams finish more than 6 points away from the playoff cut-off line.
By that example Toronto face the #1 and #5 teams
Sounders FC only face the #11 and #14.
Let's look at the whole league.
Chicago – Columbus #1 and D.C. #13 - avg. 7
Columbus – Chicago #2 and Toronto #4 - avg. 3
D.C. – Chicago #2 and Kansas City #7 - avg 4.5
Kansas City – D.C. #13 and New England #8 - avg. 10.5
New York – New England #8 and Toronto #4 - avg. 6
New England – Kansas City #7 and New York #5 - avg. 6
Toronto – Columbus #1 and New York #5 - avg. 3
Chivas – L.A. #15 and Seattle #9 - avg. 12
Colorado – Dallas #10 and Salt Lake #3 - avg. 6.5
Dallas – Colorado #12 and Houston #6 - avg. 9
Houston – Dallas #10 and Salt Lake #3 - avg. 6.5
Los Angeles – Chivas #11 and San Jose #14 - avg. 12.5
Salt Lake – Colorado #12 and Houston #6 - avg. 9
San Jose – Los Angeles #15 and Seattle #9 - avg. 12
Seattle – Chivas #11 and San Jose #14 - avg. 12.5
Now, of course this is a very ROUGH way to do strength of schedule. But there the level of turnover on the rosters is such that parity is key, so to judge the schedules early in the year, one must use assumptions. I could have used other sites, but at this point I'm going to stick with the granddaddy of soccer blogs in America.
But what is readily apparent is that the Western Conference has the easier schedule in general. Seattle, LA and San Jose all have the weakest schedules, by any measure and that makes it much easier for them to sneak into the playoffs as the final seed than a club like TFC or DC United.
As the season goes on, what we will all likely find is that because of the unbalanced schedule the West and East will be evenly represented within the playoffs, because any club that has to face the Quakes and Goats stands a better chance than a club that faces the Fire and Wizards.
There can be quibbles about the initial rankings, but if EVERYONE knows that the East is stronger, doesn't facing the East in two extra matches slightly negate their playoff chances?
I would be remiss in not thanking Prost Amerika for their aid in research and editing this piece. All errors though are my own.