To even pose the question feels like sporting heresy, but a rundown of the home-versus-away numbers in Major League Soccer ahead of Seattle's three-game road swing remains jarring nonetheless.
Why do MLS teams fare so much better playing at home than on the road?
To pose the question feels like sporting heresy, asking about a phenomenon accepted as blind fact. Domination by home teams is something that just happens, like rush-hour congestion on Interstate 5.
But a rundown of the home-vs.-away numbers in MLS remains jarring, especially for a league defined by parity and where environments aren’t always hostile. Entering this weekend, road teams were 23-65-35 in league play this season. Eight of the 20 clubs were winless away from home, including the Sounders.
And with Seattle opening a three-game East Coast road trip on Saturday at New England, it’s worth noting the factors that make MLS away games so daunting – and how those hurdles can be overcome.
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The average MLS road trip is around 1,000 miles round trip, often crossing over multiple time zones.
“You can’t compare it with my former teams,” said Sounders midfielder Andreas Ivanschitz, who has played in leagues in Austria, Greece, Germany and Spain. “You have a three- or four-hour bus trip or an hour flight. … Every player from Europe, if you ask them the hardest part (about MLS), they would say the travel.”
And it’s not just the distance. Teams most often fly commercial, with the league limiting each club to four chartered flights per season.
D.C. United provided a timely example of the downside Thursday night when its flight bound for Kansas City, Mo., was diverted to Chicago due to weather complications. The team was stranded overnight, finally took off just seven hours before the scheduled start time and necessitated a delayed kickoff.
To help combat the effects of the cross-country flight to New England, Seattle left Thursday to give the players a few days to recover. Some Sounders wear compression pants on the plane, to help lessen the wear and tear on legs.
“Some guys bought their own, made their own, borrowed their wife’s pantyhose,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “I try not to look.”
Lack of normalcy
Especially for a squad as veteran as the Sounders, this can be significant. Before games at CenturyLink Field, they sleep in their beds and spend time with their families, finding comfort in domestic rituals.
On the road, and especially ahead of night games such as Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. (Eastern time) kickoff at Gillette Stadium, players instead spend bored afternoons in lonely hotel rooms.
Professional athletes crave routines. See: goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s meticulous, nine-part checklist he must run through in order before every game:
- Jumps in hot tub
- Is loosened up by team chiropractor
- Gets taped — Left ankle first, right ankle next
- Listens to team talk while taping his fingers in the exact same order with his thumbs last.
- “Excess tape has to go in the garbage.”
- Pounds posts before he warms up
- Stretches in precisely the same spot on the field
- Talks to his posts in exactly the same order
- Raises both arms at the opening kickoff
… Wait, go back to No. 8. Elaborate: “In Swiss-German, I talk to one post saying, ‘In the first half, you will not concede a goal,’ ” Frei says sheepishly. “I tell the other post the same thing. When the half is done, I go to the same post and tell him, ‘Now, you can open up’ for when the teams switch sides.”
His superstition is on the extreme end of the spectrum but not uncommon.
“At this point, I don’t even realize all that I’m doing, but they need to be happening,” Frei said.
Frei remembers the first time he played at CenturyLink, as a visitor while with Toronto FC.
Other stadiums – such as Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium – boast more dedicated hecklers, Frei said, but Seattle is noteworthy because its fans rally in support of their team more than in opposition to the visitors.
“In this stadium, it’s not just the supporters’ groups,” Frei said. “It’s the whole stadium. It’s a weight that comes down on you. You feel that as an away player tremendously. It’s a negative for you, because you know it’s a positive for the other team. ‘I’m not welcome here. I just want to get out of here.’ ”
When the Sounders play on the road, there is a void. It’s not only the absence of their home support – and they boast some of the most dedicated traveling fans in the league – but the occasional lack of atmosphere in general.
League-wide attendance numbers and overall fan engagement have drastically improved in recent seasons. But some glaring exceptions remain, including Gillette and D.C.’s RFK Stadium, where Seattle plays Wednesday.
Trying to silence rabid Portland Timbers fans at Providence Park is a different kind of challenge than trying to hit your usual intensity levels in front of thousands of empty seats in Foxborough, Mass., or Frisco, Texas.
The final part of Frei’s routine, and the one most affected by road games, is when he salutes the opening whistle with both arms raised high in the air. At CenturyLink, a burst of pyrotechnics behind the home goal announces kickoff.
“At home, I feel that heat on my back,” Frei said. “It’s like the heat pushing me into battle.
“When I do it in Frisco, there’s nothing behind me.”
Settling for a point
As early as youth soccer, from the time he was 8 years old, Frei remembers internalizing the concept of home vs. away.
“You’re already acknowledging that it’s their turf, it’s their pitch,” Frei said. “If you win there, you insult them. At an early age, you get the idea that there’s a home and an away. There’s a difference.”
That a point is a worthy result on the road is a perception that exists not just in MLS but around the world in soccer. Sure, a win would have been nice, but a scrappy draw is almost always framed as “We’ll take it.”
“Sometimes, away teams tend to say, ‘Oh, we have to be more conservative, more careful,’ ” Frei said. “And right away, that puts you on the back foot.”
With its international absences and inconsistent recent form, an argument could made that consecutive road draws would be a positive for Seattle, a modest step during a challenging section of the season.
An argument also could be made that if the Sounders are looking at it that way, their 0-3-1 road record is only likely to get even more unimpressive over the next couple of weeks.
“You should never change your mentality for an opponent,” Sounders forward Herculez Gomez said. “They should worry about you. But that’s not always the case.”