The day is soon approaching when MLS will discard the East and West conferences and move to a single table.
With MLS announcing their two newest franchises last week in Vancouver and Portland, both scheduled to start in 2011, the league will consist of 18 teams. However, 2 0f the last 3 new expansion teams are very much on the west coast, which will either force 10 teams in the Western Conference, or some other realignment of the league.
Of the possible 10 teams in the west, the two most eastern teams are Dallas and Houston, obviously "western teams" in the traditional sense. MLS Could feasibly move one of these teams into the Eastern Conference - bringing each conference to 9. But this won't work for the long run. MLS wants to expand into the southeast U.S., and if the MLS get a franchise in Miami or Atlanta, they would then have to re-align the conferences again.
However, given the expansion in the northwest and the eventual expansion in the southeast, it could be time for MLS to finally move into a single table format. This may happen for a number of reasons.
First, the addition of Seattle has already caused the league to again re-align it's MLS Cup Playoff format for the third year in a row, partially adopting a single table format. The league has stated that the top two teams in each conference will qualify for the 2009 playoffs, and then the next four teams with the best records - regardless of conference - will qualify. That being said, the dominant conference in the league has always been the East. Given that last year there were 5 teams from the Eastern Conference made the playoffs with only one wild card spot, there is a high likelihood that 6 of the 8 teams that make the playoffs could be from one conference. This makes the whole idea of conferences moot.
Second, the idea of conferences and playoffs is a very American concept. Every other football league in the world does not have conferences at all. This has always been one of the chief complaints of football purists about the MLS. By abandoning the conferences, the league would be conforming to the world standard. It would also be reinforcing the notion that the league champion is the team that has the best overall record in the league (not the winner of the MLS Cup). It is a small step, but one that the league must take if it is ever to be taken seriously by the rest of the footballing world.
Finally, the league is continuing to grow by absorbing teams from the USL. This makes good sense for the league as these teams have a strong fan base and gurantees that the attendance will be better than average. This cherry picking from the USL (Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and potentially Montreal and Atlanta) is the forerunner to what many Football Purists have long held against the league as the most obvious difference between MLS and the rest of world: Promotion and Relegation. By absorbing these teams into MLS, the League has instituted the beginnings of Promotion into the league from the "lower leagues". Can relegation be far behind? The thing is promotion and relegation will only work with a single table format. Promoted teams and relegated teams would constantly force the conferences into re-alignment. With a single table format the league could easily absorb more teams without worrying about east vs west.
MLS has long clung to the belief that it needs to attract the diehard American sports fan in order to survive. I whole heartedly disagree. Rather, I think MLS needs to attract the FOOTBALL (i.e., Soccer) Fan in order to survive. The best way to do that is to move away from the old formula and embrace the global standard. This will not happen overnight - but this looks like it could be the beginning.