When reports first surfaced that Chivas USA might be contracted at the conclusion of the 2014 MLS regular season, speculation led to what the make-up would be of each of the league's two conferences. With the announcement earlier today that the Goats had been disbanded, that speculation has given way to a very harsh reality -- for the San Jose Earthquakes.
With the subtraction of Chivas USA and the addition of expansion sides New York City FC and Orlando City, MLS will have 20 teams participating in its 20th season. And in order to geographically balance those 20 teams, MLS has moved the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City to the Western Conference to make room for New York and Orlando in the Eastern Conference.
2015 MLS Conference Realignment
At first glance, the realignment makes sense, especially in terms of geographical rivalries and travel demands for the individual teams. Both Houston and Sporting KC called the West home in previous seasons, so the return to the left coast conference is a sort of homecoming. Houston will now be reunited with FC Dallas in the West, and Kansas City will land closer to the Colorado Rapids.
But what of the poor San Jose Earthquakes? The Western Conference in 2015 will feature all six teams that have played in the past five MLS Cup Finals -- Real Salt Lake, LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, and Sporting Kansas City. The West will also feature Cascadia frontrunners and current Supporters' Shield winners Seattle Sounders, as well as their geographical overachievers Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps.
What the new-look West won't feature is Chivas USA -- the club that has had an even worse run than the Quakes since San Jose rejoined MLS in 2008. The Earthquakes will have more than a hill to climb in 2015 in an effort to erase this year's failings, they will have a Himalayan peak!
MLS stated as part of the conference realignment plan that the league will continue to hold a 34-game season in 2015. Teams from the West will play teams from the East once, five at home and five away. Within each conference teams will play each other twice and sometimes three times, a scenario that the East has followed for two seasons but will be new for the West.
In 2014, the Earthquakes welcomed the New England Revolution, the Columbus Crew, the Houston Dynamo, DC United, and the Chicago Fire. It is likely that San Jose will play host to Eastern teams Toronto FC, the New York Red Bulls, the Montreal Impact, the Philadelphia Union, and either New York City FC or Orlando City in the 2015 season.
However, it will be those 24 games against conference opponents that will be the most important. The West is expected to be a Murderer's Row of talented teams in 2015, something commissioner Don Garber dismissed out of hand when asked about in on a conference call earlier today.
"Today's strong conference becomes tomorrow's weak conference," said Garber. "As we've experienced throughout pro sports history, what is today doesn't necessarily exist tomorrow. The realignment plan is very much about how do we ensure that we have a great competition that minimizes travel, that provides the opportunity for close proximity, teams to further stimulate rivalry, and just to create order."
A silver lining to the realignment is the return of the Houston Dynamo to the calendar on a much more frequent basis. The Texas franchise was born of the previous Earthquakes, and an organizational rivalry seemed very natural when the Quakes returned to MLS in 2008. But then the Dynamo were shipped to the East in 2011, and the former and current Quakes clubs faced off only once per season. The new alignment could have the two teams play three times in 2015, a matchup that would pit new Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear against his old team both home and away.
Can the San Jose Earthquakes avoid taking over the mantle as Western Conference doormat from the now dissolved Chivas USA? Will Kinnear and general manager John Doyle need to stock up new and improved talent to compete in the arms race that is the West? The disappointing 2014 season will need to be forgotten very quickly in San Jose. The chase for the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs begins today.