NEW YORK (AP) – There has been a power shift in Major League Soccer that few could have imagined before the 2012 season.
The Eastern Conference was supposed to be the weak sister, the collection of mediocre teams that couldn't hold a candle to Western Conference and its stable of powerhouses.
Things haven't quite worked out that way.
In the latest FOX Soccer MLS Power Rankings, a total of six Eastern Conference teams are in the Top Seven, with only top-ranked San Jose representing the West among the elite.
How in the world did this happen? Pretty simple, the West has hit a slump, with the three teams expected to be powerhouses, Real Salt Lake, Seattle and Los Angeles, all enduring their own trials and tribulations through the season's first half. The Galaxy started off in putrid fashion before rallying for three wins in June, while Seattle is mired in a seven-match winless skid in league play. RSL has dropped three straight as they deal with some key defensive injuries. Throw in the putrid seasons of pre-season sleeper picks Portland and FC Dallas, as well as an injury-hit start to the season for Colorado.
The Eastern Conference has taken full advantage, with first-half surprises like Columbus and Chicago exceeding expectations, and D.C. United and New York leading the East. Throw in an improved New England side and even an expansion Montreal team that has been better than expected, and you can understand why, at least temporarily, the balance of power in MLS has shifted.
Don't be fooled. This isn't a product of the league's new unbalanced schedule, which has teams facing conference opponents more often. The inter-conference records show that the East has closed the gap with the West. After starting the season with a putrid 2-10 record against Western Conference opponents, the East has compiled a 24-18-15 record.
Will this new trend of East teams out-performing the West continue? That may be a tough one to maintain. With the LA Galaxy rounding into form, Real Salt Lake likely to improve once Jamison Olave returns, and Colorado getting healthy, the West should be a force in the second half of the season.
That being said, the Eastern Conference has shown that it is far from being the weak link it was expected to be before the season began, which is only good news for MLS, which took a beating after switching to an unbalanced schedule. Funny how all the clamoring about how unfair the change in scheduling was the powerful Western Conference.
Here is how the FOX Soccer MLS Power Rankings shook out after Week 17:
1: SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
The Cardiac Kids did it again, rallying from a two-goal deficit to pull off another late victory, this time by a 4-3 margin over the LA Galaxy. Chris Wondolowski provided his third game-winning goal of June, helping San Jose open up a four-point lead atop the Western Conference.
2: NEW YORK RED BULLS
Earning a road point against a suddenly surging Toronto FC side is nothing to sneeze at. It may have cost the Red Bulls a share of first place for the time being, but the Red Bulls are working on integrating Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez back into the fold, which could spell bad news for New York opponents in the coming weeks.
3: D.C. UNITED
Chris Pontius keeps on scoring goals and D.C. United got back to winning ways with a 3-0 thumping of the Montreal Impact. D.C. will now have some time off to rest after a jam-packed schedule. How easy a month is D.C. about to have in July? Ben Olsen's squad will play just two matches in July, and are about to have a two-week break.
4: CHICAGO FIRE
Marco Pappa is playing at a Best XI level these days, no doubt riding a wave of confidence after scoring the clutch equalizer for Guatemala against the United States in World Cup qualifying. As important as Pappa has been to the Fire's recent surge, it has been the ability of goalkeeper Sean Johnson to overcome his Olympic qualifying demons that has really helped Chicago hit a new gear.
5: SPORTING KANSAS CITY
Peter Vermes must be shaking his head at how things have changed for Sporting KC. A team that started the year looking unbeatable has had a devil of a time recapturing that form lately. They created chances against the Chicago Fire, but couldn't beat Sean Johnson. The KC defense isn't exactly bleeding goals, but unless the offense gets going in upcoming matches against Montreal and Houston, Sporting KC could wind up sliding even further in the East standings.
6: COLUMBUS CREW
If you are getting a sense of deja vu about the 2012 season for the Crew, don't be alarmed because the team's success in the first half of the season is eerily similar to the success the team enjoyed in the first half of 2011. Stingy defense and outstanding goalkeeping is helping offset a less-than-scary attack that can still muster decent outings every now and then. Last year, the Crew fell apart because of a lack of offensive production, something the team seems eager to avoid repeating if rumors about an impending Designated Player signing are true.
7: REAL SALT LAKE
Remember when Real Salt Lake had the best centerback depth in the league? That evaporated with injuries to Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler, and the experiment of having Chris Wingert at centerback and Tony Beltran at left back hasn't really worked. The acquisition of central defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe looks more like a stopgap measure. What RSL needs badly is for both Olave and Schuler to return, especially with Nat Borchers struggling in recent matches.
8: VANCOUVER WHITECAPS
The Whitecaps had the week off, but did welcome newly-acquired midfielder Barry Robson to the fold. It will be interesting to see how long it takes the accomplished playmaker to settle into the fold, and who Martin Rennie chooses to start around Robson.
9: COLORADO RAPIDS
The Rapids played their best game of the year in thrashing Portland 3-0, and it should come as no surprise that the performance came with the Rapids being as healthy as they have been all year. Having Conor Casey and Omar Cummings up front together is huge for the Rapids,
10: LA GALAXY
David Beckham's late-game tantrum stole the headlines, but that only served to distract from the Galaxy's latest defensive meltdown. Their defending on set pieces was atrocious, and LA's defense looked little like the same unit that helped the Galaxy rattle off three straight wins in June. Having Omar Gonzalez working his way back to a full recovery from ACL surgery is great news, but LA looks doomed to struggle defensively until he is back in the lineup.
11: HOUSTON DYNAMO
Newly-acquired midfielder and Designated Player Oscar Boniek Garcia wasted little time acclimatising himself to his new team, setting up the first goal in Houston's 2-1 victory against Philadelphia. He looked lively in his debut, and with Will Bruin playing like one of the best forwards in the league, Houston could be poised for a run up the standings thanks to an upcoming schedule that includes four of five matches at BBVA Compass Stadium
12: SEATTLE SOUNDERS
How have the Sounders fallen so far? Winless in eight straight league matches, the Sounders are in free fall mode and only the team's continued success in U.S. Open Cup play has kept this season from devolving into a complete nightmare. Head coach Sigi Schmid has already issued the ultimatum that we could see some roster changes soon if things don't turn around, although that won't be easy with Real Salt Lake and Colorado up next on the schedule.
13: NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
If you hadn't heard the name Diego Fagundez before last week, after the teenager's clutch stoppage-time equalizer in the Revs 2-2 draw vs. Seattle, don't worry; you weren't alone. Revs fans have known about the dynamic and tiny midfielder for some time, and while he is still probably too young for a bigger role just yet, Fagundez is no longer a secret outside New England.
14: CHIVAS USA
A week off should help a Chivas USA side that came into its mini-break having accrued four points from their past two matches. The time off should help players like Dan Kennedy and James Riley, who have endured a grind of a first half of the season, while it should also help newly-acquired Goats Juan Agudelo and Dan Califf settle in for the first time after being traded.
15: MONTREAL IMPACT
The Marco Di Vaio era generated so much buzz before it began, but the Italian striker's arrival has been met with a thud on the field as the Impact have lost both matches he has played in. Di Vaio clearly isn't in shape yet, and it looks like it will take some time for him to get fit and settle in. The question here is whether Montreal is really going to sign Italian centerback Alessandro Nesta. If they do, the Impact could really be a force in the second half of the season.
16: PHILADELPHIA UNION
New coach, same issues. The Union have had trouble finishing all season, and that was an issue yet again in the Union's loss to Houston. Interim head coach John Hackworth is still tweaking his system, and trying to figure out his preferred lineup, and the fact he benched Freddy Adu vs. Houston may be a story to keep watching.
17: PORTLAND TIMBERS
The good vibes generated by Portland's vital victory against arch-rival Seattle faded away in the Colorado night after being thoroughly outplayed and embarrassed by the Colorado Rapids. As crazy as it may sound considering he has only been head coach for a year and a half, John Spencer is in trouble. Firing him this early into his tenure would seem a bit premature, not with the transfer window now open and not with the team having a chance to make some necessary improvements via the transfer market.
18: TORONTO FC
Don't look now but TFC is looking like the team optimists thought they could be before the start of the season. Their attack looks dangerous and their midfield is playing much better than earlier in the season, which has helped take some of the pressure off the still vulnerable defense. With Danny Koevermans regaining his 2011 form, Toronto is fast becoming a team opponents don't want to have to deal with.
19: FC DALLAS
It was going to take a lot to push TFC out of the basement, but FC Dallas managed to get it done courtesy of a putrid 11-match winless streak and 0-7-4 mark during that rut. Having former MLS MVP David Ferreira coming close to returning to action is good news, but it will take more than Ferreira's return to spark the kind of miraculous turnaround Dallas will need to salvage this lost season.