Yesterday, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber announced significant conference changes for the 2015 season. Effective immediately, Los Angeles-based Chivas USA ceased operations. The League will announce a new ownership group to replace Chivas on October 30th; the new club will not enter the league until the 2017 season.
Along with the subtraction of Chivas in 2015 two new clubs will be entering the league, Orlando City SC and New York City Football Club. Both clubs, it was announced, will be entering the league in the Eastern Conference. In order to balance the conferences to 10 clubs each, it was announced that that Houston Dynamo and the 2013 MLS champions Sporting KC would be moving to the Western Conference.
The Eastern Conference now aligns as follows for the Chicago Fire in 2015:
- Chicago Fire
- Columbus Crew
- D.C. United
- Montreal Impact
- New England Revolution
- New York City FC
- New York Red Bulls
- Orlando City SC
- Philadelphia Union
- Toronto FC
So what do these changes mean for the Chicago Fire?
Short-term impact: The Best & The Least
At first glance the removal of Houston Dynamo and Sporting KC makes the East much easier for the Chicago Fire. Kansas City is undoubtedly a tough opponent in their current state (although historically the Fire have clearly gotten the better of the Wiz), and the Houston Dynamo have been nearly untouchable by the Fire when playing down in the Lone Star state. Having these two tough opponents shipped off the West seems to open up the conference for the rest of the East to compete for playoff spots.
Many fans around the country will moan that the Western Conference was already so much stronger than the East, and that this conference re-alignment will only exacerbate that trend. These fans will undoubtedly be correct in the short run. The West will now boast powerhouses clubs like LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders and still have grinders to contend with such as Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers. Add in clubs like FC Dallas and Vancouver, and the fight for five playoff places looks fierce indeed. If I were a fan in the West, I would certainly not be happy about this re-alignment.
In the short run I think this imbalance will be glaring and dreadful to observe. Two of the historically tough teams in the East will be gone and the Eastern Conference's remaining clubs will be facing two new clubs trying to find their identity. The West will be made up of powerhouses, the East of ankle biters. There is certainly an opportunity for the Chicago Fire to capitalize on here if the club is serious about rebuilding and are willing to invest in some quality players to push the club to the next level. The removal of Houston and KC opens up two spots that tend to be towards the top of the table (most seasons, anyway); the clubs left in the East can grab those spots if their approach is thoughtful and deliberate.
Long-term impact: Dolla, dolla bills y'all
However, in the long run I believe the east will become every bit as competitive as the west if given the opportunity to flourish with the changes. Orlando City SC, with their wealthy ownership group under Falvio Agusto da Silva, will not sit idle for long after their move to MLS. This is a club that has money it is itching to invest in the club and is drawing interest from world class players. Most notably, Ricardo Kaka signed a high-profile deal with Orlando City; other Brazilian stars such as Robinho and Ronaldinho have been linked to the club. Even at this early date it is clear Orlando City plans to bring significant talent to their MLS club. I would not expect Orlando to sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table for long.
Similarly, New York City Football Club (NYCFC) is co-owned by wealthy EPL club Manchester City and MLB giant the New York Yankees. Starting from scratch, NYCFC will certainly have some growing pains, but it seems likely that this club will become a giant in short order by utilizing loans from Manchester City's deep player development system and using their owners' deep pockets to purchase aging talent from Europe. NYCFC has already announced the acquisition of European stars David Villa and Frank Lampard, and seem likely to outcompete their soon-to-be rivals in New Jersey in player acquisition.
In reality, I think these new clubs added to the mix will be a game-changers for the Eastern Conference. The Fire are going to have to step up their game if they plan to compete in the East or in MLS in general. The years of scraping the bottom of the barrel in South American leagues for coin-toss Designated Players needs to be behind the club if the Fire do not want to be overshadowed by the likes of Orlando City and NYCFC.
Some clubs - like Toronto FC = have already seen the writing on the wall and stepped up their game prior to the start of the 2014 season. We saw our Canadian neighbors to the north bring in the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe and Gilberto; we've also seen that it's more complicated than merely waving a checkbook, as the Reds couldn't make the playoffs despite those investments. It's time that the Fire step up as well, take Toronto's lead and stake a claim to a position in the new conference before NYCFC and Orlando City have a chance to stake theirs.
The Fire will also need to be prepared for potential changes to the salary cap rules for MLS. Changes will be negotiated this off season and I believe it is unlikely that some of these new high-profile clubs coming into the league intend to be knee-capped in their progress by antiquated salary rules made for the purpose of keeping a young league alive. Be prepared for these new clubs to push the MLS for increased abilities to spend and build.
In the short run, I believe there is an opportunity for the Fire to capitalize on with the changes to the conference. If Frank Yallop and Andrew Hauptman take the opportunity seriously, they can build a strong club before these new clubs get their footing, and the Fire can return to their proper place as a premier club in MLS. The East will be weak for a year or two to come; now is the time to strike. If they don't, the Men in Red will find that the East quickly becomes every bit as competitive as the West. If we reach the end of the decade without that kind of investment, the Fire's chance to return to an MLS force to be reckoned with could be lost to history.