Life on the road isn’t supposed to be easy. Whether ‘home field advantage’ is just a myth or there really is a huge advantage to players sleeping in their own beds, playing in front of their own fans and not having to sit on a bus or a plane is open to debate, but it has been a given in all of sport since memory serves.
By now, it’s even something of a cliché — going on the road is tough.
While teams in the National Women’s Soccer League — outside of Portland — don’t have much by way of raucous crowds to intimidate opponents, every team has to deal with a schedule that borderlines absurd at times.
Teams take 20-day breaks (like the Washington Spirit did in late May and early June), play away from home for ridiculous stretches (the Western New York Flash are through eight games in a stretch where they play eight of 10 on the road) or embark on silly sort of cross-country travel in a short time frame (like Seattle Reign FC, which recently played on a Sunday in Rochester, N.Y., then Wednesday in Boston and Saturday in Seattle — all in intense heat and humidity).
A lot of these problems are due venue availability and scheduling restraints that the league had to account for on short notice after only officially forming in November 2012. That’s understandable. But the logical reality is that it should add up to a formula in which road trips — particularly the back ends of them — become daunting.
Reality proves anything but.
Entering Week 14, road teams are 20-22-14 in the NWSL. The visitors aren’t just holding their own — they are nearly matching the win total of home teams. Perhaps part of that has to do with home teams being just as gassed (see the aforementioned stretch for Seattle, even though Reign FC went through it unbeaten).
And of particular note is how every team to make the quick turnaround Seattle-Portland road trip has come out with at least three points. Sure, part of that has been due to Seattle’s dreadful start (0-9-2 before first winning…currently 1-5-1 at home), but mighty Portland Thorns FC (8-4-2, 26 pts.), with an average of 12,797 fans, have suffered shutout defeats at JELD-WEN Field to Sky Blue FC, the Chicago Red Stars and the Boston Breakers.
Boston’s 2-0 win over Portland on Sunday came on the back end of the Breakers’ five-day Pacific Northwest trip. It put a shocking exclamation point on the Thorns’ struggles (goalless in 293 minutes, despite Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair in the attack), but the result also exemplified how winnable road games are in this fledgling league — and how a home crowd thought to be an advantage for Portland may be just as beneficial to opponents.
“We were excited about the road trip, because I’m from Seattle, Syd (Leroux)’s from Vancouver – people had a lot of family out here,” Breakers coach Lisa Cole told The Equalizer’s Richard Farley after Sunday’s win. “We were looking forward to getting out to the Northwest. Coming down here and playing in Portland, these guys are lucky to every day have this kind of environment. How can you not be prepared to play? Today’s energy, we were able to feed off the energy of the crowd, even though they were not cheering for us. We were able to feel that momentum. It was good for us.”
Let’s take a closer look at those Pacific Northwest midweek/weekend road trips. Four teams have embarked on them thus far, with the Flash set to play Seattle this Thursday and Portland on Sunday. Chicago faces the task at the end of the month:
Sky Blue FC 1-0 Portland; Washington Spirit 4-2 Seattle on Thursday, May 16
Sky Blue FC 3-0 Seattle; Washington Spirit 0-2 Portland on Sunday, May 19
— Sky Blue leaves with maximum 6 pts., Spirit leave with 3 pts. and only win of season to date.
FC Kansas City 3-4 Portland on Thursday, June 6
FC Kansas City 1-0 Seattle on Sunday, June 9
— FC Kansas City leaves with 3 pts. and although none of them came from JELD-WEN Field, the Blues expose the Thorns defense and gain confidence knowing they can keep pace.
Boston Breakers 1-1 Seattle on Wednesday, July 3
Boston Breakers 2-0 Portland on Saturday, July 6
— Boston Breakers leave with 4 pts. and, after beating league leaders Sky Blue FC the weekend prior, are suddenly in the hunt for the fourth and final playoff spot.
July 11/14 — Western New York Flash @ Seattle on Thursday, July 11 and @ Portland on Sunday, July 14
July 25/28 — Chicago Red Stars @ Seattle on Thursday, July 25 and @ Portland on Sunday, July 28 (Fox Soccer)
In fairness, the isolation of Portland and Seattle in their own part of the country means that they have to make similar types of trips to the East Coast. Reign FC’s aforementioned Rochester-Boston-Seattle dandy is one of two miserable stretches for the club, which opens up August with a trio of games in a week on the Atlantic Coast.
Portland only once has to stay on the road for more than a game this season (the Thorns have multiple stretches with consecutive road games, but all are on consecutive weekends with no midweek games). Here is what August looks like for the NWSL’s two West Coast teams:
August 3/7/10 — Seattle @ Chicago on Saturday, August 3, @ WNY on Wednesday, August 7 and @ Washington on Saturday, August 10
August 7/10 — Portland @ Boston on Wednesday, August 7, @ WNY on Saturday, August 10
They end the season playing each other in Seattle on August 17.
What does all of this mean, you ask? For one, home field advantage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe that isn’t surprising in a brand new league, but it is notable — especially in Portland.
And bigger picture, that all could be concerning for the league’s top seeds come late August. The regular season champion will host the fourth-place finisher and the No. 2 seed will host the No. 3 seed in semifinal pairings, with the best remaining team hosting the final. There, in a league beginning to truly show its parity, anything is possible.
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