Clichés are bad enough in sports broadcasting and writing. But the very worst among them: the clichés that aren’t even true. It’s a double whammy of awful.
This is one of my real pet peeves in soccer journalism and broadcasting. Also file this under: “Some lessons never get learned, apparently.” So let’s go over this one more time:
Just because a place has a great atmosphere and habitually packed stands, that does not necessarily make it a difficult place for opposition to perform. And yet we hear it or read it time and again when MLS teams arrive into one of the grounds renowned as peppy and pulsating: “They are visiting one of the toughest places in the league!”
The next time a writer types such a thing, or the next time a broadcaster utters such nonsense, please feel free to roll up your notes and whack yourself over the nose with them.
Yes, a stadium may teem with passion and even vitriol for the visitors – but that energy itself doesn’t create hardship. In fact, it may actually help feed desire on both sides, for the home and road team alike.
You know what makes a building tough on opposition? When the team inside it has good roster, led by astute coaching. That is, when a team that plays inside a stadium is actually a good team.
I was thinking of all this because of BMO Field in Toronto, which just underwent the first phase of a big re-do. And it looks great.
And how great have the fans been around Exhibition Place all these years? Yes, the crowds have dwindled some, a product of a wandering club that still has never participated in the MLS playoffs, which is simply amazing.
But for so many of those early years, BMO Field was billed time and again as such a tough place to play. Only, it wasn’t.
It was certainly a ground with brilliant atmosphere, one where TFC and visitors alike usually enjoyed performing. Because, you know, everyone gets jazzed by playing in front if big crowds, where the supporters are involved and engaged, alive with passion.
The support was back Saturday, a packed house and a shout-out-loud symphony of support for their Reds. And yet they lost. Historically speaking, that’s no major surprise. Toronto’s historic struggles to make hay at home highlights the disconnect: perception of “tough place to play” vs. actually having a tough place to play.
Those early years when BMO Field was habitually branded “difficult” on the visitors: TFC won 39 percent of its matches over the first five years.
Compare that to the LA Galaxy, who have won three of the last four MLS Cup titles. During that time, Bruce Arena’s sides have won 66 percent of their home matches. The Galaxy has lost just 9 times in 68 regular season matches over that four-year stretch. Now that is obviously a tough place to play.
Only, we don’t regularly label the StubHub Center as that proverbial “tough spot” because the crowds tend to be more placid than they are in, say, Portland or Philadelphia. So what if the decibel count doesn’t always rise to ear-splitting levels in Carson, Calif.? Bruce Arena’s teams are still libel to open a serious can of whup-ass, to pour a steady stream of misery down on the visiting afflicted. (Or they were; this year’s version has yet to find its best self.)
North of there along the West Coast, the energy around Portland’s fantastic Providence Park could power a small brewery. And yet Caleb Porter’s team won just 5 of 17 home matches last year. Tough place to play? You tell me.
Similarly, Sporting Kansas City remains on this massive sell-out streak at Sporting Park. The support inside that modern, high-tech ground is as phenomenal as the physical structure itself. It really is a superb place to take in a match. And yet …
The record for Peter Vermes’ side over the last two years at home is a pretty humdrum 15-10-9 (or 44 percent wins). And from the day it opened, SKC has found it difficult to win the biggie at Sporting Park, the PK triumph at MLS Cup 2013 inside a frigid facility as the most obvious exception.
Down the road, FC Dallas is typically mid-pack to low-pack in attendance. The ground sits way out in the burbs, so it tends to be more of a family crowd, especially compared to the majority of urbanites that fill Seattle’s CenturyLink or a few others. So, it’s not exactly the notorious “Den” in gritty South London when it comes to intimidating atmospheres. And yet, here we find that Oscar Pareja’s team is an impressive 16-5-2 at home over the last two years. Dallas is a good team at home; that makes Toyota Stadium a difficult place to go collect points.
The thing is, playing in front of a raucous house energizes everyone, hosts and visitors alike. It’s this way in all sports. Consider what former NBA standout Chauncey Billups told ESPN’s Colin Cowherd just this week. His thoughts on hitting a big shot that wins a game on the road were highly instructional. Billups talked about how the group solidarity is enhanced when only your tiny group are celebrating.
“There is no better feeling that making a big shot to win the game on the road,” he said. “You’ve got to understand, you got everybody in that building rooting against you. To make that shot, you can hear a needle drop. Now you got 20,000 people in there, and you got your five on the court, plus the rest of guys on the bench. You got nobody but the guys in your uniform celebrating. No better feeling in the world.”
Soccer players are no different.
Obviously, a team can be strong and play within the framing of brilliant atmosphere. Seattle is the gold standard of the dependably rising MLS crowd counts, owners of pretty much all the league’s attendance records at this point. And Sigi Schmid’s team has won 22 of 34 home matches at the downtown ground over these last two years.
Of course, that has more to do with guys named Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso than thousands of Rave Green voices at full shout. But let’s not allow a little context or deeper understanding of an issue to bust up a good ol’, reliable, stand-by cliché.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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