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Sandy • It's never been easy to win the Supporters Shield regular-season title in Major League Soccer.
But a new schedule format figures to make it even harder for Real Salt Lake.
The team must play every rival in the MLS Western Conference three times this season, while meeting Eastern Conference opponents only once such as when the New York Red Bulls visit Rio Tinto Stadium for the home opener on Saturday night.
Considering the West is widely considered the deeper and more powerful conference, that means RSL will have to contend far more often with the stronger teams, and get fewer chances to take advantage of the weaker ones.
That's why general manager Garth Lagerwey said he won't be surprised if Sporting KC or some other Eastern Conference team wins the Supporters Shield, because they have more opportunities to take points from weaker opponents while RSL is battling the likes of the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas.
"We need to be sure to hold serve, particularly at home, against Eastern Conference opponents," Lagerwey said.
The league changed its schedule format this season to accommodate the addition of the expansion Montreal Impact, which gave the league 19 teams 10 in the East and nine in the West. It also changed its postseason format so that the top five teams in each conference make the playoffs, period.
Previously, the league had used "wild-card" playoff berths in recent years to assure that all of the best teams made the playoffs both the top two or three teams in each conference and several of the next-best teams, based on regular-season points.
But with a balanced regular-season schedule, the West dominated in that format.
In the past three years, for example, teams from the West have won five of the six league titles on offer - all three MLS Cups and two of three Supporters Shields - and represented nine of the 12 playoff semi-finalists. Last season, the top four teams in the West all had more regular-season points than the Eastern Conference winner.
And in 2010, the last year before the league closed a loophole that allowed wild-card teams to be placed on the opposite conference's side of the bracket - remember, RSL won the MLS Cup in 2009 after advancing through the Eastern Conference side - six of the eight playoff teams came from the West.
"Common sense would tell you that … if you just go on last year's statistics, you would say that the stronger conference in the West," coach Jason Kreis said.
"And if we have to play each other more times, it gives the Eastern Conference teams a better chance to win the Supporters Shield.
"But I don't know if that's necessarily true" this season, he added, "since we've only played one game this year. I think we better hold those comments for a little later."
Nevertheless, Lagerwey said he expects Western Conference teams to win a solid majority of their games against Eastern teams this season, even as an Eastern team piles up the points toward the Supporters Shield.
He's well on his way to being correct, too.
In the season's first week, the West was 5-1 against the East, although all five victories came at home.
Midfielder Ned Grabavoy said he strongly believes the West features the most difficult places to play in the league from Seattle and Vancouver to Portland, Los Angeles and RSL but also acknowledged that the unbalanced schedule will keep RSL from traveling as far for road games.
Its five Eastern Conference road games are at Kansas City, Houston, Columbus, Chicago and Philadelphia. It won't have to travel to New York, New England, D.C. United, Montreal or Toronto.
"So I guess they think that should help us, in a way," Grabavoy said.
"At the end of the day, your home games are probably the games you have to win to collect as many points as possible," he added. "And then wins on the road and hard-fought ties along the way, are all kind of icing on the cake. That's kind of our approach to it, a little bit, but we'd like to try to play the same way every game."
Is West best?
Teams in the MLS Western Conference have won five of the six trophies available the past three years:
Year MLS Cup Supporters Shield
2009 RSL Columbus
2010 Colorado Los Angeles
2011 Los Angeles Los Angeles
N.Y. Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake
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