By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 15, 2020) US Soccer Players – It only makes sense, really. Team sports typically turn on several factors when it comes to winners and losers. Talent, of course, but also less tangible elements that work into the psychology of the players on the field. We make a big deal about home-field advantage because the numbers tell us it’s real.
Teams playing in their home stadiums, in environments they know well, close to their homes, in front of fans supporting them do better than teams playing in places they’re only vaguely familiar with, far from their homes, in front of fans who don’t like them. Obvious logic is obvious.
So what happens when you throw those variables out and remove the home field advantage? Club soccer competitions are not typically predicated on playing games in neutral venues because eliminating the partisan crowd defeats the purpose of playing at all. This is a spectator sport. The word “spectator” is right there in the description.
MLS Is Back in Orlando, like the many other return-to-play exercises happening around the world, is bringing into focus just how much the setting of a match matters. The revelation that even empty stands can have a dramatic effect on the balance of results from the Bundesliga’s post-pandemic shutdown season earned plenty of attention down the stretch of the German season.
“It’s easier for the away teams when there are no fans in the stadium,” said Bayer Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz. “Without spectators, it comes down more to the quality of players.”
The numbers told the story. Home teams won 43 percent of games before the shutdown, but only 33 percent when the game returned to empty stadiums. More than the setting, the statistics appear to confirm that a stadium full of partisan fans does turn a game. Several other Bundesliga managers agreed with Bosz. Without the faithful, it was talent rather than emotion dictating the result.
Crowds also have an impact on refereeing, a phenomenon that is well known and impossible to prevent. Referees are human for now. Humans are subject to all sorts of influences. Freed from the psychological pressure applied by thousands of people surrounding them, referees are now less likely to tilt the game in the home team’s favor.
For Major League Soccer, this makes the overall dynamic of the post-shutdown return-to-play slightly different.
MLS Is Back is a wholly contained tournament happening in a neutral location. Neither team is the “home” team. The lack of fans might be an equalizer, but so is the environment. The awkward hotel accommodations. The mental drain of being away from home with significant downtime. The hot and humid playing conditions are undeniable factors in the proceedings at the Wide World of Sports complex. That’s in addition to the missing crowds.
The theory in Germany is that the lack of fans helps the more talented teams overcome the disadvantage of being the visitor. In MLS, there’s no visitors’ disadvantage to overcome. Add the policies that enforce parity among clubs, and the effect is very different. The more talented team looks to be losing out rather than benefiting.
Travel fatigue is not a factor for the Bundesliga during regular times and wasn’t an issue for clubs moving around the country during the restart. Travel in MLS is a major concern during a typical season. It won’t play a role in results with every club participating in MLS Is Back camped in Orlando for the duration.
Let’s acknowledge that determining which side is “more talented” in a given MLS matchup is a problem. That’s because of the parity that turns of home-field advantage on its head in the first place. Home teams in MLS typically do much better than home teams in Europe, with most seasons delivering a 60% win percentage for the host side.
What this means for MLS Is Back is that the tournament is rifer for “upsets” than a normal schedule. The tournament has already delivered a few high profile surprises in which a favored team dropped points against the underdog.
If there is a “home” team at the tournament, it’s Orlando City. The Lions might have an advantage thanks to their familiarity with the July weather in Central Florida. That comes up short as the sole explanation for why the perennial strugglers knocked off the group A favorite, NYCFC, on Tuesday night.
Like everyone else, Orlando City made a few additions in the winter. The club also hired former FC Dallas coach Oscar Pareja, a move that promised better results based on his track record. Maybe Orlando City got that much better. Maybe NYCFC, mostly unchanged from 2019 save the head coach, got worse.
The defending champions Seattle arrived in Orlando as a favorite, in large part because the Sounders navigated the MLS Cup playoff tournament so adeptly over the past few seasons. Seattle is talented, battle-tested, and healthy. It’s the perfect combination for a deep run at the odd tournament.
Yet the Sounders sit on a single point after two games. Style of play and rust might explain the stalemate against San Jose in their opener. A loss against Chicago, a team that missed the playoffs a year ago and went through another rebuild in the offseason, is more difficult. The Fire might be better than they were last year. Or the conditions on the ground in Orlando leveled out the field just enough to eliminate Seattle’s perceived advantage.
All of this means chaos is the order of the day at MLS Is Back. At least more chaos than usual for MLS. Take a competition built on parity and throw out the variables that give one of the teams the advantage, and MLS Is Back becomes nearly impossible to predict.
With one game to go in their group stage play, a 2020 preseason favorite, NYCFC, is on the verge of going out. The defending MLS Cup champions have a single point and face a must-win against the Whitecaps. The Supporters’ Shield holders needed a comeback from two goals down to grab a point against the Dynamo. That was without their biggest star because that’s another thing MLS Is Back is throwing into the mix. Several players opted out, including 2019 League MVP Carlos Vela.
Germany’s return to the field brought with it the apparent end of home-field advantage. With everyone away from home, the MLS return to play is only reinforcing that most MLS of features, parity.
More From Jason Davis:
- The changing scope of MLS is Back
- The situation for USMNT players in the Championship
- MLS is Back triggers the transfer market with a twist
- The USL Championship’s plan to play
Photo by Jared Martinez & Devin L’Amoreaux – MLS Communications