The road trip, that staple of modern American cinema, has held little in the way of romance or wonder for the Portland Timbers. Disappointment, anguish and frustration have characterised the journeys away from downtown PDX.
The team has desperately struggled to find any form other than awful, and the figures make for pretty uncomfortable reading. Of their 28 MLS matches at home the Timbers have won 14, yet of their 27 away matches they’ve returned to the Pacific Northwest with all three points on only two occasions, and have had nothing more to show for their travels than a fresh stack of air miles no fewer than 17 times.
Such are the depths the team have sunk to on the road that the recent 5-0 defeat to FC Dallas – a result that was humiliating enough in isolation – saw them go 697 minutes since their last goal away from home, setting a league record as wretched as it is unwanted in the process.
The travails on the road are all the more stark when compared to a reasonably decent home record. JELD-WEN has been somewhat of a fortress where the Timbers won their first five home matches in their debut season last year. Though they’ve obviously not been able to maintain that deep into their second year, the record at home is still okay where it is distinctly mid-table form in the West.
The reasons from this great disparity in form has vexed many around the club. The club’s Jekyll and Hyde nature may be explained by some as the result of a boost at home by the fanatical and rambunctious support of the Timbers Army. The Army gather in the North End, making a cacophony of noise from an hour before the whistle until long after the players have departed the field.
With such support comes a degree of pressure, which the players have addressed, but does it really gives the Timbers such a distinct home advantage as to explain the vastly divergent returns home and away?
Certainly, opposing teams have oft spoken of how unique the atmosphere generated by the Timbers Army is, within the context of MLS. However, all evidence points to their being no direct “home advantage” effect. Many academic studies have been conducted to look into the issue, with most agreeing that the size and volume of the crowd have no discernible effect on the end result. The myth of the “twelfth man”, while appealing to our romantic nature and sense of tribal belonging, is little more than that – a myth.
Where there may be some influence exerted by home crowds is over officials. Studies have shown that there is indeed a tendency for referees to show a slight bias towards the home team. A large mass of supporters, shouting with one voice, can subconsciously influence the referee’s decision making in favour of their team in marginal calls. To be perfectly frank however, it’s hard to discern whether this “referee bias” has any greater effect than good old fashioned poor officiating, which is as rife in MLS as collective amnesia regarding support levels in USL is amongst Seattle’s loyal customers.
There are, though, examples where it does seem that the home crowd has had a direct influence on the play. In a match earlier this year against Chivas USA, a routine cross ball was spilled by Dan Kennedy, the Chivas keeper, into the path of Kris Boyd, who rolled it into the net. This apparent lack of communication between goalkeeper and defender happened right in front of the massed legion of the Timbers Army, and it’s not much of a stretch to think that the noise coming from them made communication difficult, leading to the mistake.
Another aspect that may, in some small part, explain some of the disparity in the team’s form is the field itself. At only 70 yards wide, the pitch at JELD-WEN only just meets the standards laid down by FIFA as acceptable for international matches. To put it into some context, Wembley Stadium is 75 yards wide and Barcelona’s Camp Nou is 74 yards. The relatively small size of the pitch in Portland has drawn criticism from a few quarters, notably Chicago Fire defender Dan Gargan, who called it a “shoe box” following Chicago’s defeat there in May.
While it’s debatable whether the field size hands the Timbers any real advantage at home – I tend to think it gets overblown a bit – it could be a factor in the team’s road woes. There has been a tendency for the club to be exposed down their flanks, with many goals coming from play that has begun out wide, and taken advantage of space between defenders. Perhaps those extra few yards are opening up gaps that aren’t there at home, or perhaps it’s because the full back position is one the Timbers have struggled to adequately fill since joining MLS last year. Six of one…
The thing is that the Timbers don’t seem to concede significantly more goals on the road (46 away, 38 at home), so the problem more likely lies at the other end. Of the 59 goals they’ve scored the Timbers have found the net a grand total of 12 times on the road, and have yet to score more than once in any single road match.
Thierry Henry, when addressing his relatively poor start to Arsenal’s first season at The Emirates, made an interesting point about lacking the visual cues he had built up at Highbury in the new ground. You can see how being able to tell with a single cue in his peripheral vision that he’s 25 yards from goal, and slightly off centre, could make a crucial split-second difference to a striker who has a hulking great defender breathing down his neck.
But, let’s be honest, it’s doubtful that Kris Boyd, for example, has built up such a wealth of instinctual knowledge in his time in their few months in Portland that Henry had in seven years at Highbury, so it’s seems the problems may be more psychological than anything. The team can seem defeated before a ball is even kicked, and when they go a goal behind it’s generally the end of the match as a sporting contest. The poor road form has become a vicious cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, and one that is hard to break in a league that is already one of, if not the most arduous for travelling teams.
It’s easy to forget just how vast the continental United States are. It crosses four time zones, and local derbies are measured in the hundreds of miles, the LA “SuperClasico” between Chivas and David Beckham’s Galaxy excepted.
The longest single trip in the league is when San Jose Earthquakes visit New England Revolution (or vice versa), and covers a distance, one way, of around 2680 miles. To put that figure into some perspective, that would be the equivalent of Liverpool travelling to play in Baghdad.
With this in mind, it’s little surprise to see that Major League Soccer clubs tend to perform more strongly at home than clubs in other big leagues. In 2011 MLS teams, on average, picked up 62.2% of their total points tally at home (Home Reliance, HR) and the figure is currently up to 64.6%. Last season in England, Germany and Italy the figures we 57.9%, 59.1% and 61.6% respectively. In a league of comparable geographical size, Brazil’s Serie A, the figure jumps to 63.5%. There does seem to be some correlation between the distances travelled and “home advantage”, though even in Brazil there is a clustering of teams round a few large urban centres – something lacking in MLS where the general rule of thumb is one city, one team.
Rooting out the cause of the terrible away form is something that the Timbers current interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson, and his eventual successor, will have to do if the club are to be in any way successful. Last year they had a 71.4% HR, a figure only beaten by fellow expansion side Vancouver Whitecaps (82.1%). This season the Timbers have seen it jump to 90% while the Whitecaps has already almost match their home tally of last year while more than doubling success away from home.
Curiously, the team second to the Timbers in terms of reliance on home form is Montreal Impact, this years expansion club, with 86.7%. Perhaps there is something to supporters having a positive effect of their team when everything is still fresh and new; something that naturally diminishes over time. Teams in the East, like Montreal, do tend to struggle a little bit more away from home (66.4% HR in the East, 62.7% in the West).
So, while Vancouver have improved their away form and are looking good to reach the play-offs, the Timbers continue to toil. Had they performed “on average” away from home, Portland could expect to have 8 more points (based on home form), which would tuck them in behind LA in the race for the playoffs. Instead, they face a fight with Toronto FC in a race to avoid the wooden spoon.
For a club where the mascot chainsaws slabs of wood for every goal the team score, there would be some dark irony in that particular “achievement”.