The traditional imbalance of power in Major League Soccer seems to have shifted hard to the Western Conference this season.
Not only do all four of the lowest-ranked teams play in the Eastern Conference, but the two teams that seem most improved have risen in the West.
Tops among those is FC Dallas, the MLS points leader, which faces Seattle Sounders FC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at CenturyLink Field.
“They’re a team that has done well,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “They’ve stayed pretty injury-free. They’ve had little niggling things, but I think all their offense has stayed pretty healthy with the exception of (David) Ferreira missing the Portland game and then missing the last game (against D.C. United). They got through a good preseason. I think they have a good cohesion within their group right now, and they’re playing very well.”
Dallas and Portland — currently 1-2 in the West — are the only one-loss teams in MLS. Meanwhile, D.C. United, Toronto, Chicago and New England — the bottom four in the East — are the only MLS clubs with fewer than three victories.
“I always think the West has been a little bit stronger,” said Schmid, who noted that this became harder to measure since last season, when the league shifted to an unbalanced schedule. “The West has always had quality teams; the East has quality teams. It sometimes goes back and forth, but I think certainly over the last period of time — two, three, four years — the West has been a little bit stronger when you look at the whole conference.”
That Western tilt has increased with the ascension of the Hoops.
After finishing 9-13-12 last season, Dallas added the offensive firepower of 2012 Golden Boot runner-up Kenny Cooper and Eric Hassli to a roster that included Blas Perez, Fabian Castillo and Ferreira. On the back end, the club brought in Peruvian goalkeeper Raul Fernandez to play behind a defense that already included Jackson, Matt Hedges, Zach Loyd and George John, formerly of the University of Washington.
The result has been a 7-1-3 record this season and an ongoing nine-game unbeaten streak, the longest in MLS. Dallas is second in goal differential, goals and average goals per game.
“They’re a very confident team right now,” Schmid said. “We have to play with a lot of confidence ourselves and just have to make sure that we hold on to the ball.”
The Sounders’ confidence has grown as their season-opening five-game winless streak has given way to a five-game unbeaten streak.
Combined with the expected return to health of designated players Obafemi Martins and Shalrie Joseph, the Sounders seem eager for a challenge.
“We’ve got a bit of a run going on right now, where we’re starting to come into ourselves and really find ourselves right now,” said Seattle forward Eddie Johnson, who played in Dallas from 2001 through 2005. “It will be a good test ... the hottest team in the league, to be playing against.”
The Sounders are tied for seventh in the West. They know that if Dallas and Portland — teams that missed the playoffs last season — crash the party this season, then at least two Western Conference teams that made the playoffs last season will stay home this time around.
“It’s going to be tough — but it’s tough all the time,” Schmid said. “It always comes down to somebody missing it at the very end. There’s enough quality in the West ... and obviously a good team is going to miss at the end of the day.”
FC DALLAS (7-1-3; 24 POINTS) AT SEATTLE SOUNDERS (3-3-3; 12)
7:30 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Ch. 5. Radio: 97.3-FM.
Head to Head: The Sounders lead the series 4-1-4 overall, 2-1-1 in Seattle, and won the series last season 2-0-1. The teams will meet again Aug. 3 in Seattle and Oct. 19 at Dallas.
NOTES: Dallas has the best record in Major League Soccer. The Hoops are on a nine-game unbeaten streak (6-0-3), while the Sounders are unbeaten over their last five (3-0-2). Seattle hasn’t allowed a goal in four of those five games. Dallas is 1-1-2 on the road; Seattle is 1-1-2 at home. Six Dallas players have scored winning goals this season, tops in MLS. Dallas is second in the league in goals, goals average, goal differential and fouls suffered, while forward David Ferreira leads the league in fouls suffered. Ferreira (hamstring) and midfielder Andrew Jacobson (hamstring) are listed as questionable, while defender George John (knee) of Shoreline is out. Seattle midfielders Mauro Rosales (shoulder) and Steve Zakuani (abdomen) are questionable. The referee is Mark Geiger.
QUOTABLE: “They’re a dangerous team counterattacking because of that speed. But because of their size, they’re also a team that’s comfortable putting the ball in the box and hoping their big guys get on the end of it. So, it’s a good team this year because they’ve got good balance.” — Sounders coach Sigi Schmid on Dallas.
NEXT: The Sounders visit the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 26.blog.thenewstribune.com/soccer