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Can Minnesota United Break the Road Curse?

A closer look at the phenomenon of home field advantage

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota United took down Portland on Wednesday. After penning the Timbers into their own end for long stretches, creating a bevy of quality chances, and playing steady if not flawless defense, the Loons came away with a 3-2 victory.

Let us rejoice!

But wait a minute, is this the same team that got outclassed by Real Salt Lake last weekend? A quick look down the score sheets reveals that Minnesota United used an identical line up twice in a five-day span, with very different outcomes.

The difference maker of course, was location. The Loons defeated the third place Timbers in the comfortable confines of TCF Bank Stadium, while they dropped the game to then last place Salt Lake on the road at Rio Tinto Stadium. The disparity between these performances highlights an important issue for Minnesota United: why is it so difficult to win on the road?

While the Loons have already notched their fifth win – otherwise known as the Grant Wahl mark – and have gained credibility around the league since a dreadful opening month, a win on the road remains an elusive benchmark. At 0-6-2, Minnesota owns the second worst road record in the league, behind only Colorado, at 0-6. Minnesota’s next chance to break their road jinx comes Thursday against New York City Football Club, a team that currently sits third place in the Eastern Conference. After that, the Loons will have to put their road concerns on the back burner as they rattle off six straight home games.

From the outside, the game at RSL looked like a golden opportunity for the Loons to break the road curse. Heath played a line-up of mostly second stringers in the mid-week US Open Cup game against a full strength Sporting Kansas City in order to save the starters for the Salt Lake game, and Real – who lost 4-2 at Minnesota in April – looked to be reeling after losing 5-1 to Houston, 6-2 to Dallas, and then 4-1 to USL side Republic FC in their three games previous. However, it was the Salt Lake side that dictated the pace throughout the match and earned the 1-0 victory that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. RSL took 29 shots, and it took some stout goalkeeping from Bobby Shuttleworth, a goal post, as well as a daring last-minute tackle in the box by midfielder Sam Cronin just to keep the Loons within striking distance. Did I mention that United produced only one shot on goal?

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota United players, for their part, are well aware of their trials and tribulations on the road.

“I think it’s just a comfort thing,” said defender Kevin Venegas. “When you’re at home you know all those fans have your back and you don’t want them quiet.”

Defender Jerome Thiesson, a veteran of the Swiss leagues, says the MLS presents a unique set of challenges for road teams. “I think playing on the road is definitely tougher here than in Switzerland because of the travel, because of the conditions. You have altitude, then two days later you have heat. Travel is not always easy to get out of the body.”

Thiesson’s position on this issue borne out by the evidence. “We’re not on our own in that area,” Heath said, in reference to road woes across the league. Heath pointed to the second place Houston Dynamo, a team he calls on of the “most dynamic” in the league, as one example. The Dynamo are 0-6-2 away from BBVA Compass Stadium. The Western Conference overall has seen 16 road wins against 54 losses and 17 draws. What is perhaps most striking is that the top two teams in the conference – Kansas City and Houston – have only one road win between them to date.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Minnesota United FC Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

While home field advantage is not limited to the MLS, a cursory glance at some of the most well-known leagues around the world indicates just how pronounced the phenomenon is in the league’s Western Conference right now. MLS all-star opponent Real Madrid was 14-4-1 this year at home, but didn’t exactly struggle on the road at 15-2-2. Barcelona was 15-3-1 at home against 13-3-3 on the road. Similarly, the top six teams in the Premier League all had winning records away from home this year. It’s fair to say that the MLS Western Conference has been even harder on away teams than would be expected this year, from the top to the bottom of the table. The LA Galaxy – 5-2-1 – is the lone exception, and the only team in either MLS conference above .500 away from home.

Home field advantage is of course a factor in all leagues and all sports, but it might not be caused by what we think. According to the book Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won written by University of Chicago behavioral economist Tobias Moskowitz and veteran Sports Illustrated writer John Wertheim, the most significant factor influencing why home teams win more games than they lose is not travel, familiarity with field conditions, or vocal fan support, but referee bias. Referees, according to the book, are subtly but significantly influenced by vocal fans, and the “bigger the crowd, the worse the bias.” The study of home field advantage is backed by a great deal of data, including a study conducted by a London School of Economics professor whose elderly grandmother – true story – collected detailed handwritten notes documenting the amount of injury time granted in La Liga games.

The data collected by the economics professor’s grandmother revealed that in 750 games, the injury time when the home team was ahead averaged a little under two minutes, while the average time allotted when the home team was behind was four minutes. Huh!

As for Minnesota United, they seem prepared to steer clear of fancy theories presented by distinguished professors and their fastidious grandmothers. Thiesson emphasized the importance of self determination. “It shouldn’t be an excuse,” he said, referring to factors like travel and altitude. “We want to improve and do better in the future playing on the road.” Heath, not surprisingly, singled out effort as the factor that can potentially turn things around. “Our level of determination to win a game on the road has been nothing compared to what we’ve done at home,” he said. “We have to play at our maximum. We can’t have three or four people who drop 10 to 15% and that’s what we’ve had on the road.”

MLS: Minnesota United FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota will try to maintain its own home field advantage Saturday against Vancouver. As for that elusive road victory, having missed the opportunity at Salt Lake, the Loons will have to regroup before they travel to New York Thursday. They will need to stick to their game plan, play at their maximum, and hope it’s enough to overcome David Villa and the referees that may be subconsciously biased by a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd.