Philadelphia, PA – The best no longer reside in the West.
Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference has been widely regarded as second- best to the West for many years. Just look at the past three MLS Cup contests: five of the six teams involved have come out of the Western Conference.
The San Jose Earthquakes, the league's top team overall, sit atop the West with 50 points through 26 games, but there are plenty of clubs in the East capable of making a deep run come playoff time.
For the sake of comparison, San Jose leads seventh-place Chivas USA by 22 points. In the East, just eight points separate first-place Sporting Kansas City and the next six teams.
Pair that with the fact that six of the top 10 teams in the league play in the East and it's no question which conference is stronger at the moment.
But with seven quality teams vying for five postseason berths out of the East, how will it all unfold?
Barring a monumental collapse, Sporting and Red Bull New York, which occupy first and second place, respectively, are safe bets to advance beyond the regular season.
Sporting may not be favorites to stay atop the East after Teal Bunbury was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL sustained at the weekend.
Without a central scoring threat the past couple of seasons, Kansas City has gotten its goals by committee with Kei Kamara and C.J. Sapong chipping in. But in Bunbury's absence, there will be more pressure on the forward line and midfield maestro Graham Zusi to produce the goods.
The Red Bulls are coming off of back-to-back road points against Sporting and D.C. United, but midfielder Tim Cahill insists that the team is not satisfied with that.
"We should have really won this game and I feel anyone who watched it will probably agree," Cahill said after a 2-2 draw in D.C. on Wednesday. "I'm really happy about playing the way we did away from home, especially when playing two games in a week. This is the way to go, this is the way forward, and we need to back it up. The good thing is that the lads are disappointed with drawing and with the way we gave away the goals, but we're going to put it right in the future."
Five of New York's seven remaining matches are at home and its road games are at the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution, giving the club a light travel schedule ahead of the postseason. The Red Bulls certainly figure to be competitive down the stretch.
The Houston Dynamo, currently sitting third in the East on 42 points, have proven to be a quite dangerous team. The club enjoyed an eight-game unbeaten streak from June 30 to Aug. 3, but Houston has taken just two points from three games since.
What is perhaps most worrying for the Dynamo is the form of leading scorer Will Bruin. The UCLA product has managed just two goals in his last 10 games, a strike rate that he will need to be improve if Houston wants to make a run at a second consecutive MLS Cup appearance.
D.C. United and the Chicago Fire are clinging to the final two playoff slots, tied on 41 points apiece.
With Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and now Lionard Pajoy up front, United should have no trouble scoring. But while they have scored the second-most goals in the Eastern Conference, their porous defense has leaked seven goals over the club's last three games.
Chicago has retooled its squad throughout the season, adding the likes of Alvaro Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald as Designated Players. The Fire are 3-1-1 over their last five matches, but their most recent outing, a 4-2 loss at D.C. United, raises questions as to whether Frank Klopas can bring it all together this season or if the squad will need additional time to jell.
The two clubs on the outside looking in are the Montreal Impact and Columbus Crew, who are tied on 39 points apiece.
Montreal is the hottest team in MLS, winning five straight to make up 15 points in the table. But with the tight playoff race heating up and the Impact only having six games left, any other in-form club in the hunt could solidify a postseason berth at the expense of the expansion side with a solid run down the stretch.
Then there's Columbus.
The Crew have been a model for stout defensive play for a while, but since the departure of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, there hasn't been much for the club to write home about on the offensive end. But a lack of goals appears to be a thing of the past thanks to new signings Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain.
Columbus is 3-0-2 over its last five games, scoring 11 goals over that stretch. The club's last two matches have been come-from-behind wins, something Danny O'Rourke attributes to confidence and composure in front of goal.
"With the team now, we have some proven strikers that find the back of the net," O'Rourke said after the Crew's 2-1 win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. "We don't panic when we get down one nothing, two nothing. We continue to fight. ... Now we just have guys calm around the box, and create chances for us. I mean, we started to jell kind of at the right time."
Columbus and Montreal are in sublime form heading into the final two months of the season, and their playoff aspirations ultimately are in their own hands.
The fact of the matter is that both clubs still sit outside the playoff window, and the only way to get back in is for the teams above them to drop points. The most-assured route to the postseason for Columbus and Montreal would be for them to take points off of teams currently occupying playoff slots.
That places added importance on matches between playoff-hopeful teams, and with seven of the 10 Eastern Conference teams still in the playoff hunt, the race is likely to go down to the wire.
It is all setting up for an enthralling conclusion to the Eastern Conference regular season.