Major League Soccer prides itself on parity, but when the championship is determined, there is a good chance a Western Conference team will pick up the trophy.
Since the Columbus Crew captured the MLS Cup in 2008, six of the last seven MLS Cup champions and four of the seven Supporters' Shield winners have come from the Western Conference. The only Eastern Conference team to win the MLS Cup during that span was Sporting Kansas City, who now resides in the West, in 2013.
As the 2016 season approaches, the West is still seen as the better conference, but there could be a chance that the East takes over the throne if certain things fall into place.
The good news for the East entering the new season, which begins March 6, is it possesses a few teams that are capable of winning the MLS Cup.
The New York Red Bulls, who have won two Supporters' Shields in the last three years, bring back the majority of last season's Shield-winning squad. With Bradley Wright-Phillips up top and Dax McCarty leading the midfield from his spot in front of the back four, the Red Bulls have the talent to finally get over the hump and win the championship. But their one big question will come in defense with Matt Miazga now at Chelsea.
Speaking of defense, Toronto FC finally upgraded its back four with the offseason acquisitions of Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour. With an attack led by Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco firing on all cylinders, the Reds should be near the top of the standings all season long.
Gregg Berhalter's Columbus Crew will also be seen as a favorite to qualify for the Cup out of the East due to the strength of their squad. If Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay are half the players they were in 2015 over the next nine months, Columbus will be back in contention for the championship.
But to be the better conference throughout the entire season, you need to have depth from position one to 10. The reason we bring this argument up is the improved quality of the teams at the East's cellar. Chicago and Philadelphia both improved their rosters over the offseason thanks to changes in the front office. Nelson Rodriguez and new manager Veljko Paunovic have made reasonable roster decisions for once in Chicago, while sporting director Earnie Stewart has brought in a new vision and identity in Philadelphia.
Add in a New York City FC team with a full offseason together under its belt and a hungry Orlando City squad that just missed out on the postseason in 2015 led by reigning Rookie of the Year Cyle Larin, and we should witness a fierce battle for all six playoff positions in the East, just like we witnessed in the West in 2015.
The one team holding down the strength of the West right now is the Colorado Rapids. Pablo Mastroeni's squad has had a questionable offseason to say the least. Key contributors Marcelo Sarvas, Clint Irwin, Vicente Sanchez and Moor have left, while very few proven starters have filled their places on the roster. Forward Shkelzen Gashi, who transferred to the Rapids from Basel, is expected to produce up top, but the rest of the starting 11 is far from a known quantity.
The same can be said about the pair of teams near the bottom of the West with second-year managers. Owen Coyle has made some improvements to his Houston squad, but the Dynamo may still go as far as Giles Barnes and Will Bruin take them. Chris Wondolowski may end up doing the same with the San Jose Earthquakes if the young core fails to progress in Dominic Kinnear's second year in charge.
A few perennial powers are also facing questions entering the new campaign. Real Salt Lake is under pressure to rebound from a tumultuous 2015, while the revamped L.A. Galaxy need to prove the critics wrong with an older lineup that will feature Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Nigel de Jong.
FC Dallas, Vancouver, Seattle and Portland should be near the top of the West in 2016, while Sporting Kansas City should compete for a top playoff spot with its improved roster that features more depth than last season. However, the West may be too top-heavy if the clubs at the bottom of the table fail to improve.
Of course all that matters at the end of the season is who hoists the MLS Cup. Until the title is taken away from the West, it seems right to project one of the 10 teams from that conference to win it all in December. Plenty of pundits will pick FC Dallas, Vancouver, Seattle and even L.A. to challenge Portland's quest for a repeat. In the East, only the Red Bulls, Crew and Toronto are legitimate championship contenders.
It is still way too early to give a concrete answer to this question, but the offseason acquisitions by certain squads and the hunger to capture a title have brought the East closer to the West in terms of quality entering the league's 21st season.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
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