Toronto FC's supremacy a sign of a paradigm shift in Major League Soccer
It has taken a while, but Saturday evening could represent a milestone for one of the more intriguing trends in Major League Soccer: the rise of the Eastern Conference.
For most of the past decade, the Western Conference has been in an unquestioned ascendancy in numerous areas on and off the field. The Cascadia teams in particular infused the Western Conference with a new gold standard for a critical mass of fan support. LA Galaxy pioneered and honed the Designated Player model. Even small market teams such as Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake won MLS Cups.
The East, particularly when viewed through the lens of the West, looked distinctly old-world by comparison. Its original powerhouse, D.C. United, and its own expansion fairy tale, Chicago Fire, were in long slumps; the New York Red Bulls were struggling to attract fans in New Jersey even with Thierry Henry on the team; the Revs were being lapped in terms of ambition ... and Toronto was a joke.
Any hope that the switch to a strictly in-conference playoff format a few years ago might spread the MLS Cup wins territorially has generally been a bust. Yes, then-Eastern Conference team Sporting KC won in 2013, though it was on a home final that went to an epic penalty shootout in subzero temperatures. Ultimately, that was barely more telling than a coin toss.
Other than that, Eastern Champions have generally experienced MLS Cup as the moment when their pretensions are exposed by more convincing Western Conference teams. There have been competitive, close finals within that time frame, of course, but generally, the outcome has matched the expectation that if the Western Conference team plays to its strengths convincingly, it wins.
But that expectation has been shifting, first gradually and this year, it seems, dramatically. Eastern Conference teams have been competitive in Shield races for the past few years, though always faintly damned by the suggestion that in an unbalanced schedule, the tendency of strong Western teams to cannibalize each other's search for points handed the Eastern teams a significant advantage.
But in 2017, that caveat no longer held. The Portland Timbers were the Western team that finished highest in the Supporters Shield standings, and their 53 points were good enough for only sixth place, an astonishing 16 points behind Toronto.
Toronto's turnaround and historic season have been well-documented, but this was also a year that saw New York City FC consolidate under Patrick Vieira, Chicago Fire finally slot the telling pieces into place on its rebuild, Columbus Crew SC finish the season on a dangerous streak, and of course, Atlanta United emerge as the new paradigm for MLS expansion on just about any aspect you care to mention. Even the Red Bulls, who struggled through an indifferent season by their recent standards, finished just three points behind Portland.
While the Eastern side of the playoffs has been full of drama and some fiercely competitive games, the West has been largely memorable for the rutted Houston field and teams looking determined not to lose, rather than striving to win. Seattle has been the lone exception and is a deserved champion of the West, but the context that has shaped its arrival in the final has made for a curiously subdued sense of expectation about the Sounders starting a Cup dynasty with a back-to-back win.
It shouldn't be that way, of course. The Seattle team arriving in Toronto this year has, on paper at least, a rather more credible shot at going toe-for-toe with Toronto than the injury-ravaged, well-organized fighters who killed last year's final as a spectacle and won the MLS Cup without a shot on target.
Clint Dempsey's comeback deserves a trophy, and the Sounders deserve to have their own narrative as an exemplary expansion team and Open Cup specialists who've finally discovered the MLS Cup secret sauce told in its own right.
But it's a measure of the East's dominance and Toronto's worst-to-first-by-miles trajectory that beyond Cascadia, this final is likely to be remembered as the one Toronto finally won -- or the one it again, somehow, lost.
While the vanquished Eastern Conference teams, and especially Columbus and the Red Bulls, are unlikely to have fond memories of Toronto in these playoffs, they might in time come to appreciate anything the Reds can do to consolidate the shift of power to the East.
After all, too many Eastern teams have come up short when faced with the aura of teams from the West, as much as their technical prowess -- think of the sense of inevitability about the moments when the LA Galaxy took leads for good in their serial triumphs. But now it's perhaps time for a dominant Eastern season to be capped by a dominant Eastern MLS Cup win.
If that happens, we can truly talk about the balance of power shifting decisively and MLS Cup being the East's to lose.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.