Prematurely Pressing the Panic Button: The Race is On

USA TODAY Sports

Twelve weeks into the season, the tables have started to stratify in a very interesting way. Here's my take on how they look - and what that could mean for the rest of the season.

The organization of Major League Soccer into conferences rather than one large table is something that is a constant target of scorn and derision from many people. I'll be honest - I have my own problems with some of it, but that's not the subject of this post. Whatever problem you might have with them, that's how the league runs things at the moment. I'm just here to point out one of the coincidences that comes from this setup - something that you're not going to see in most leagues.

This is a trend I first noticed two or three weeks ago. The idea for a post on it came to me soon after, but I decided to wait a little longer, and see if the table has cleared up, so to speak. As the trends I've noticed are still continuing by now, I feel that enough of the season has passed to signify a trend - and not merely the jumbled mess that is generally the tables at the beginning of a season.

(Note: This is from the table that I keep, so any mistakes are because I didn't copy something right. In the off chance that something is wrong, the "official" table can be found here.)

Club: Points: GP: PPG: W: L: D: GF: GA: GD: HG: HGD: AG: AGD:
1 FC Dallas 24 11 2.18 7 1 3 18 11 7 12 8 6 -1
2 New York Red Bulls 21 13 1.62 6 4 3 19 15 4 8 4 11 0
3 Houston Dynamo 20 11 1.82 6 3 2 17 10 7 9 5 8 2
4 Sporting Kansas City 20 12 1.67 6 4 2 15 9 6 9 5 6 1
5 Montreal Impact 20 10 2.00 6 2 2 15 11 4 9 5 6 -1
6 Portland Timbers 18 11 1.64 4 1 6 18 12 6 10 5 8 1
7 Real Salt Lake 17 12 1.42 5 5 2 13 13 0 6 2 7 -2
8 Philadelphia Union 15 10 1.50 4 3 3 13 14 -1 5 -1 8 0
9 Colorado Rapids 15 11 1.36 4 4 3 10 9 1 5 0 5 1
10 LA Galaxy 14 9 1.56 4 3 2 13 8 5 8 6 5 -1
11 San Jose Earthquakes 14 12 1.17 3 4 5 12 18 -6 9 1 3 -7
12 Columbus Crew 12 10 1.20 3 4 3 12 10 2 5 0 7 2
13 Vancouver Whitecaps 12 10 1.20 3 4 3 12 14 -2 9 4 3 -6
14 Seattle Sounders 12 9 1.33 3 3 3 10 7 3 5 3 5 0
15 Chivas USA 11 10 1.10 3 5 2 12 18 -6 7 -1 5 -5
16 New England Revolution 10 10 1.00 2 4 4 6 9 -3 4 0 2 -3
17 Toronto FC 7 10 0.70 1 5 4 11 15 -4 8 0 3 -4
18 Chicago Fire 7 9 0.78 2 6 1 6 15 -9 5 -2 1 -7
19 D.C. United 4 10 0.40 1 8 1 5 19 -14 4 -7 1 -7

With two exceptions in the middle of the table, most Eastern Conference sides are either very high in the table, or very low in it. Eastern teams make up four of the top five and four of the bottom five in the race for the Supporter's Shield, with only Columbus and Philadelphia in the middle of the group. Conversely, the middle nine places are almost all Western Conference sides - only Dallas at the top and Chivas USA are outside that range - and Chivas USA is barely outside it.

What does this tell us about the conferences this year? Apparently, mediocrity is the new norm in the West, where eight of nine clubs are in a seven point range. Most sides that started off hot (hello, Chivas USA) have cooled off a little, while those that started slowly (Portland comes to mind) have heated up recently.

We're far enough into the season - about a third of the way, give or take - that these kind of observations can be made, though it's still rather premature to suggest that you're going to see a race in the West like they had in the East last season, where the playoff seeding wasn't decided until the last day, since the majority of the clubs in competition were with a small range of points.

The opposite has happened in the East so far this season. There are a couple of clubs in the middle, but for the most part, they're doing either really good or really bad (which is a mild understatement of how the DCU season has gone so far). There's not a single side that's ran away with the lead in the tables so far, and it seems that every week, there's a new club sitting on top of it.

The sides near the top have had bumps in the road, but no side that started strong has really slumped (as Chivas USA has in the West). Nor has a bottom dweller gotten hot to climb the table (as Portland has), meaning that while the individual positions in the table may change from week to week, it's the same rotation in every spot.

What does this signify for the playoff race in the East? As I said a little earlier, it's still a little bit too early to be making too many predictions, but if the table continues to trend the way that it has been, you may not see much of a race for playoff spots. There will be seeding fights, but not much else. Let me put it this way: if the season were to end in a week or two, four of the five Eastern Conference seeds would be set.

I'm not saying that this won't change - in fact, I expect it to, sooner or later - but merely pointing out a trend. Part of the excitement last season was that there were several sides that still had a chance to make the playoffs with only two or three weeks left to play. At the rate that this season seems to be going, you could see a number of sides go into the last third of the season with nothing to play for but pride.

What does this mean for the Dynamo, you ask? Well, at the moment, they're one of those Eastern Conference sides that are flying high. Last weekend's result aside, this is still a side that nobody wants to play at home. It took a phenomenal effort to beat the Dynamo in Houston - and there aren't that many sides in this league who could come in and keep that level of play up.

There may not be any kind of glorious streak to defend any longer, but I might argue that as a good thing - the attention given to the streak was (as mentioned by several players) like a target on the back of the Dynamo. Historically, this is a side that is very hard to beat at home - eighteen losses in 116 matches is a testament to that. Three points are never a given in any match, but the Dynamo are always very likely to take all of them away from a match at home.

The road is still another story. Again, the results of the last week must be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, six points from four days on the road is amazing. It's certainly not something I had thought we'd get out of that road trip. That being said, the road play can always be improved. Good sides are expected to consistently take points from home matches - it takes even better sides to consistently gain results away from home.

And if these tables hold true - and they have in the weeks since I first noticed this - those road results could make the difference come the end of the season. Remember, the MLS Cup is now hosted by the side with the better record. Last season, two points separated the Dynamo from hosting the Cup - that's a single draw replaced by a win. Every point helps, and every result helps.

I get the feeling that the race in the East will be very tight this year. It's up to the Dynamo to keep pace with it, and hope that good things come to those who can do so. There's no need to press that orange panic button yet, folks - after all, we've still many months and matches to go.

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