I don't think I'd realized until today the degree to which the Eastern Conference and Western Conference schedules no longer overlap in MLS in 2021.
When the Sounders drew Atlanta in May, that was their only scheduled game against an Eastern Conference opponent this year until this week's Columbus clash. With no Open Cup on the docket, and no more possible MLS Leagues Cup contenders to worry about, these will be the only two we see.
This also means we are playing as many LigaMX teams during our Regular Season as Eastern Conference teams. Weird.
Now and Then
FC Dallas, who the Sounders play this Wednesday, are one of the few teams to beat Eastern Conference-leaders New England this year, and are scheduled to play NYCFC in September for a total of only two out-of-conference games all year. Timbers are similarly only scheduled for two Eastern Conference clashes.
Sporting KC started the year with two straight games against the East, Red Bulls into Orlando City, where they won both, but are only scheduled for one further Eastern Conference opponent this year: the Chicago Fire. Galaxy had a similar two game run to start to the season (they also won both of those) after which they won't play another team out of the East all season. These examples are just a small cross section of teams involved, but the trend holds, and you get the idea.
By contrast, in 2019 Sounders played 12 teams from the East. In both 2018 and 2017 11 Eastern Conference teams were on the Sounders schedule.
(In last year's asterisk-attached and abbreviated season Sounders only played two Eastern Conference teams. There were only 18 games in the 2020 regular season for Sounders including "MLS is Back" so it's not the best comparison. But it did turn out to be indicative of what we're discussing today.)
Previously the Sounders were playing ~1/3 of their league games against Eastern Conference teams. Now we're down to 2 out of 34 in some cases.
Apples and Oranges?
What does New England's current Supporter Shield-leading points total mean with these facts front-of-mind? Do they really stack up well against the West? Can we even properly compare?
New England have only played one Western conference team and lost, currently the club at 10th in the West. Not great for them. They will then play Colorado at the end of the season. On top of that they are leading what I would characterize as an otherwise very inconsistent division of teams.
NYCFC is surging here in the dog days of summer, however they have faced only an ailing LAFC in 2021 (winning that), with Dallas their only other remaining Western Conference opponent. Going on a recent run against Fire, Toronto and then Inter Miami is good, however that's the 10th, 12th and 14th ranked teams in the East which isn't exactly doing anything beyond what's expected for a playoff team.
Based on the schedule and results so far, with only one game a piece against the West, right now both New England and NYCFC's point totals feel a bit hollow, and will remain so to the end unless something drastically improves in the consistency of the lower table teams. That being said, this is all admittedly very subjective, based on my own limited viewing, because we lack the actual head-to-heads that we previously had to help make more informed judgements.
This regionalized approach to the schedule has effectively created a similar situation to Major League Baseball with an American League and a National League where teams are largely separate with only occasional inter-league play. Previously only the playoffs leading to the cup final were conducted regionally, not the overall schedule. Until now.
Did we realize this was where MLS was headed? Was this approach inevitable with a 30+ team "league" in the eventual future?
Frankly, I do think the level of play in MLS overall is higher this year as a result of players not having extensive travel prior to games. How many Sounders games have I witnessed where the team was not at even half-speed following a cross-country flight on commercial air into an inhospitable humidity? So many. So I do think this approach can have positives that directly the affect the product on the field.
2 out of 34 games doesn't quite feel right though.
This makes the league something different than it was before.