We are just two weeks into the 2012 MLS season, and much is already being made over the Western Conference domination of the leagu e. As of March 18, there are a cumulative total of four wins and two draws for Eastern Conference teams, and 11 wins with two draws for the West. Part of that is because many of the East teams opened on the road against the West, but some has to be attributed to the better play of the Western Conference.
The Portland Timbers have made it very clear, from management to every player, that anything less than a playoff appearance would be a major letdown.
The new unbalanced schedule means that the Timbers will be playing each team in the West three times, while facing Eastern Conference foes only once. Because of that, the opening season win over the Philadelphia Union was the last time in the regular season Portland will play them.
Another factor in the playoff competition is that this year, there will be no teams jumping conferences. Last season, the top ten went, regardless of conference. That's why the biggest fight for that last spot was between Portland and the New York Red Bulls.
Most pundits speaking about the playoffs this season think it will be harder in the Western Conference because only the top five from each side will advance. What's often missed is that fact that after all the chatter about East vs. West last season, the playoffs began with five teams from each.
Because the West was so dominating in play over the first two weeks of this season, some see it as a sign of a tougher road to the playoffs for teams in the West. While there is little question there is a better quality of play overall in the West, it's not as huge a gap as the 2012 season so far makes it look.
Top teams must be good all year
More importantly, it doesn't matter how good they are in relation to each other when it comes to making the playoffs. Each conference will have their five best teams advance, and there will be some level of parity among them. If that parity is at a high level or even mediocre, the outcome is the same - five from each.
It's important to remember that each team will play others from their conference three times. Sure, that means RSL gets three chances to beat up on Chivas USA. So do the Timbers, and every other team in the west.
Even more telling, the top teams will have to play each other three times. There will be no way around it, to get in the playoffs means you have to beat other playoff quality teams, and sometimes do it on the road. If the Galaxy hope to repeat, they first have to run the same gauntlet, which includes facing an RSL team that beat them once two more times.
Parity on two sides
The Eastern Conference teams will be doing the same thing. Even if they lose most of their outings to the West, the teams at the top will still have respectable points totals. Does the new format ensure the top ten teams in the MLS will be in the playoffs? Of course not. What it does mean is that the teams from the West might be playing at a higher level, and will dominate the postseason.
The Portland Timbers and fans need not fear the new format. Take each game as important, and earn points at home and on the road. We have a side that can get it done on the pitch, now it's time to make it happen.
Jeff Musall has been a fan of the Portland Timbers since moving to the area in 2001. He is excited about the second MLS season and wants to see a playoff run.
- Portland Timbers