A home advantage historically has been worth playing for in Major League Soccer and other major professional circuits.
The Sounders will take the CenturyLink Field pitch Sunday against Toronto FC, in front of roughly 70,000 fans, looking to bolster a 77-45 overall edge by home teams in championship games or a final-series Game 7 in MLS, MLB, the NHL, NBA and NFL.
Still, as decisive as that .631 winning percentage looks, it hasn’t been as advantageous lately. The last four MLS Cup games saw Atlanta United and Toronto FC win the two most recent at home, while the Sounders and Portland took two prior on the road.
In other sports, the Washington Nationals last week became the fourth straight MLB road team to win Game 7 of the World Series. In June, the St. Louis Blues became the third straight NHL road team to capture Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, while the Cleveland Cavaliers won the most recent NBA Finals Game 7 at Golden State in 2016.
None of that surprises sports psychologist and author Dr. Don Greene, who’s spent years working with U.S. Olympic divers, track and field athletes, the Vail Ski School and Major League Baseball players, among others.
“To me, home-field advantage is a myth,” Greene said. “It doesn’t exist.”
Greene said Sunday’s game is about how players interpret it. The Sounders, he said, could feed off the crowd and play their game, or go in cocky, thinking: “Hey, we’ve got everything going our way.” Meanwhile, he added: “The visiting team can interpret it as a disadvantage. Or, they can go: ‘No, let’s show them we can beat them.’ ”
He described working with 1984 Olympic silver medalist Michelle Mitchell, angry over losing the 10-meter platform gold to China’s Zhou Jihong at “home” in Los Angeles. The ensuing world championships took place in China with Mitchell leading Jihong but needing to nail a difficult technical dive on her final attempt.
The Chinese crowd began stomping their feet to distract her.
“Any other diver would have stepped back and asked for more time,” Greene said. “But she said ‘Oh yeah? Watch this!’ and she nailed the dive and got all 9s and 9 1/2s.”
Former NHL captain and onetime Seattle Breakers junior star Ryan Walter, who runs the RyanWalter.com performance training company for business leaders and athletes, agreed home advantage or disadvantage Sunday is “in the eye of the beholder.”
“I don’t know if there is an advantage,” Walter said. “You’d think there is, and fans like to. But it’s a real balance between urgency — you’ve got to get it done — and thinking too much. One thing coaches will say to players is ‘Stop thinking!’
“So, if you or I are home players and we perceive there’s added pressure to perform in front of the home fans, then we outthink the process,” Walter said.
Those assuming an automatic Sounders coronation merely need look at the last playoff round, when they knocked off the “Greatest MLS Team Ever” at Los Angeles FC while visiting Toronto downed defending champion Atlanta.
Atlanta’s crowd was about what CenturyLink Field will have, so that’s nothing new to Toronto.
There’s been one prior winner-take-all major pro championship matchup in Seattle: The Sonics losing Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals 105-99 to the Washington Bullets.
But the pre-MLS Sounders won four A-League/United Soccer League titles at home in decisive matchups in 1995, 1996, 2005 and 2007.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer worked the 2005 and 2007 games after losing a 2004 title at Montreal. He’s also won and lost the MLS Cup final at Toronto in 2016 and 2017, leaving him 2-0 at home and 1-2 on the road coaching such affairs.
“I think there is a psychological advantage for the home team,” Schmetzer said. “I think the fans in the building, just being able to be in-market, enjoy the normal buildup to a game. The tricky part is: How much do you put on that advantage? Is it a 5 percent advantage? A 2 percent advantage?”
He also knows his players will feel butterflies and expectations.
“The flip side is that there is this subtle, or different, kind of pressure on the home team because I know how folks use the underdog card,” Schmetzer said. “When we went in to LAFC, the messaging was: ‘We’re not afraid to come down here and play.’ ”
Things used to be more lopsided for home teams.
MLS Cup squads playing at home are 7-3 while NFL championship games starting in 1933 saw home teams go 23-9 and then 1-1 in the Super Bowl era if counting the Los Angeles Rams loss’ in Pasadena, Calif., in 1980 and the San Francisco 49ers’ win at Stanford Stadium in 1985.
NHL home teams had won 12 of 14 such meetings until Vancouver began the recent slide in 2010, while MLB home teams had won nine straight Game 7 title matchups before Kansas City lost in 2014. The NBA hasn’t had many Game 7 championship affairs lately, but, prior to Golden State losing in 2016, home teams captured five straight.
Greene isn’t surprised things turned, given how many teams now use sports psychologists or psychology of some kind to negate pressure and crowds.
The Sounders don’t have a sports psychologist but are looking at adding one. Toronto doesn’t either, though it employs occupational therapist Michael Rabasca to use “neuroscience and psychology to focus on developing our athletes,” according to the team’s website.
Greene said modern analytics can sometimes help teams strategize for one-off games. But once the opening whistle sounds, it’s a matter of blocking out the noise — literal and figurative — and being mentally ready to execute.
“This is not chess,” he said. “It’s soccer.”