PARIS – While the powerhouses of the MLS Western Conference were busy flexing their collective muscles this past weekend, teams over in the Eastern Conference provided more evidence of just how weak the conference is and how shaky the East is as the playoff race heats up.
East-leading Columbus was demolished by Seattle while second-place Sporting Kansas City blew a two-goal lead to suffer a gut-punch of a late home loss. Third-place Houston remained winless by suffering a frustrating 1-0 defeat to lowly Vancouver.
Those three losses only served to magnify the sad state of affairs in the East.
Just how shaky are things in the East? Only the Chicago Fire has posted a win in its most recent match, and a strong argument can be made that the five best teams in MLS at the moment are all in the Western Conference.
That the West is stronger than the East isn't that much of a surprise, but the disparity has been compounded by the fact the New York Red Bulls, the prohibitive favorites to run away with the East before the season began, have put together a woefully underachieving campaign, and instead of looking like a title contender, the Red Bulls are battling just to even make the playoffs in a league where ten of 18 teams reach the postseason.
With New York struggling, it has been up to surprising contenders Columbus, Philadelphia and Sporting Kansas City to emerge and show real signs of being teams capable of making noise in the post-season, but there are clear concerns about every East team, even the current leaders.
Consider the issues faced by the top four teams in the East:
The Columbus Crew: When healthy, can field a defensively-strong team with enough attacking weapons to push opposing defenses, but what the Crew lack is dependable depth, as witnessed against Seattle, where the impact of the absences of standouts Julius James and Eddie Gaven was glaring. Western Conference powers like Los Angeles, FC Dallas, Seattle and Real Salt Lake have all dealt with significant injuries, and all responded extremely well in large part to strong benches.
The Philadelphia Union : Showed the foundation for a tough playoff team early in the season, with a stingy defense and veteran-laden squad, but the Union's offense has been erratic and the departure of Carlos Ruiz has hurt the attack. Freddy Adu's arrival should help boost the offense, but until Danny Mwanga starts showing that he can be a dependable lead striker, Philly looks destined to fall short as a title contender.
Sporting Kansas City : Has the capability of being a surprise Eastern Conference champion, but Saturday's stunning loss to FC Dallas raised some serious questions about the team's toughness and intelligence. Kansas City has had a history of cracking in pressure situations late in seasons, but despite a new team name, new stadium and new squad, Sporting KC has shown an alarming penchant for blowing leads.
The Houston Dynamo : Revamped its roster during the summer transfer window, with the additions of Carlo Costly and Luiz Camargo, but questions remain about the Dynamo's defense and dismal road record. Houston is winless in 13 matches away from home. Until Dom Kinnear's squad starts showing it can be a threat away from Houston, the Dynamo seems doomed to an early playoff exit more than a deep run.
The other teams in the East playoff mix have even bigger issues. D.C. United is a young team that shows its immaturity in its inconsistent results. There is talent to put together some results, but it will take an uncharacteristically steady string of strong performances for D.C. to grab a top three spot in the East, which would mean avoiding the Western Conference.
All is not lost for the East. The Columbus Crew owns wins against Real Salt Lake (twice) and FC Dallas this year, actually tied Seattle in their meeting in Columbus, and pushed Los Angeles to brink in their lone meeting this year, so Saturday's blowout loss doesn't mean the Crew couldn't win an MLS Cup Final. The question is whether the Crew could get there.
Sporting KC could also still straighten things out. With French defender Aurelian Collin returning from injury, KC should be even tougher defensively down the stretch. The offensive weapons already there, but the real challenge will be overcoming the loss to Dallas in time to cope with a brutal stretch of games including meetings with Los Angeles, Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia and Columbus.
As for the other contenders, D.C. has two games in hand on the East leaders and could still be a contender for a top three playoff spot, while the Red Bulls seems destined for a trip through the brutal Western Conference, assuming the big spenders even make the playoffs.
The sad reality is that there are only three guaranteed playoff spots for Eastern Conference teams, and with Portland showing signs of new life and Chivas USA still in range to challenge for one of the wild card spots, there is still a chance the West grabs seven of ten post-season berths.
That just might happen, and we could be headed toward a second straight MLS Cup final without an Eastern Conference participant, if the Eastern Conference's best teams don't shake off recent disappointments and start playing some better soccer.