The MLS Cup is the ultimate prize in any season, but for those teams in an increasingly competitive Western Conference, the task will only be more difficult in 2012.
Unlike in past post-seasons, teams across MLS seem to be making significant player acquisition announcements on a daily basis. Perhaps this is partly due to the league experiencing its shortest time span between seasons — something that gets even shorter next year — but is more likely a product of teams recognizing how important on-field success is to the growth of their franchises. Getting rosters set early in the preseason allows coaching staffs to set strategy and formations for the long haul that is the MLS regular season.
Teams will always look to the summer to refresh their rosters with a new player or two — and perhaps a glitzy Designated Player if given the chance — but that late-to-the-party planning is not as likely to pay off quite as much as it did in past seasons. Two factors especially make starting the season strong more important than ever: the return to an unbalanced competitive schedule and the split of MLS playoff berths along conference lines.
On the surface, the MLS postseason format is nearly identical to that used in 2011, with a small change made to make the conference championship a two leg series instead of a one game winner-take-all affair. The initial wild-card play-in match in each conference will continue as a way to take the ten qualified teams down to eight. The big change comes not in the format, but in the qualification process to make the post-season. Whereas in the past teams might cross conference lines such that the top finishers in a league-wide table made the playoffs, MLS in 2012 will revert to a strictly intra-conference postseason — the top five teams from the East and the top five teams from the West get the chance to compete for the MLS Cup.
If this format were in use during past seasons, when the regular season schedule was balanced or at least in close adherence to balanced, some better faring teams would have been shut out of the postseason due to arbitrary conference alignments. In the new frontier of MLS, that will no longer be the case, as now the regular season features a radically unbalanced schedule that focuses matches on intra-conference opponents. In 2012, the San Jose Earthquakes will play 34 games: 24 games against their 8 Western Conference cohorts and 10 games against their 10 Eastern Conference foes.
To advance their hopes of qualifying for the 2012 post-season, teams in the West will need to ride the Eastern gauntlet — considered the weaker of the two MLS conferences — looking to maximize their points haul and providing a cushion in the standings in preparation for where the real competition is within the conference. Those 30 points on offer from the East will be concentrated in the early months of the 2012 schedule, so getting off to a good start in the regular season is paramount for teams out west.
As the calendar turns to summer and fall, the intra-conference opponents come at the Western teams in a fast and furious manner. Stumble early, and they’ll find themselves in a difficult hole out of which to emerge to crack the conference top five. Those summer signings that in the past could make a huge impact on a playoffs hopeful team? In 2012 it might be too late to recover from a spring of poor results. More than ever in MLS, the adage that the games count just the same in March as they do in October can not be so coolly dismissed.
Looking at the recent activity of teams in the MLS Western Conference, an arms race seems to be at hand as rosters are bolstered not just with star signings but quality depth players at all positions. The San Jose Earthquakes are a part of this stockpiling strategy, and have made a collection of moves so far this off-season that rank as the best ever for the rebooted franchise. But are the Earthquakes doing enough to keep pace with their Western Conference competition? Can San Jose improve on a lackluster 2011 season to secure one of the five playoff spots on offer to the West in 2012? Time will tell as the preseason pushes on, and by the season opener on March 10, the answers will be known.