Life on the road in professional sports is not kind: a swirl of plane travel, traversing time zones, and hostile crowds, all of it adding up to a losing cause.
Across North American pro sports, the story is mostly the same: minimize the disadvantage and scrape away what one can. In some sports, such as hockey, football, and baseball, the road is not severely unkind. In basketball and soccer, it’s much worse, the two sports where teams struggle the most away from the cozier confines of home.
The numbers in Major League Soccer are arguably the starkest, best seen observing goals for and against. The home team holds a tremendous advantage.
Last season, across the 19 teams in the league, 17 outscored their opponents when playing at home. On the road, the complete opposite: 16 teams were outscored. It was almost exactly the same the year before, 17 teams scoring more goals than they allowed at home and 15 teams outscored on the road.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, a third of the way through their promising fourth season, have been perennially weak on the road. In 2012, their sophomore season in which they made the playoffs, they were 3-10-4 on the road. Last year, the team was nominally better, 4-9-4.
This weekend in Portland could become a demarcation point for the club. Portland has struggled at home, one win and six draws, and Vancouver through 11 games is ranked fifth in the league on a points-per-game basis. The road remains an anchor for Vancouver – though slightly less so than in the past – with a .500 record in 2014 of 1-1-3. Still, Vancouver has never won on the grounds of the rival Portland Timbers, who entered the league alongside the Whitecaps in 2011.
Why almost every team in the league, including most of those who make the playoffs, struggle on the road is combination of factors: travel, differing surfaces (grass, turf), varying altitude and the constant of the roar of spirited hometown fans.
“The dynamics do contribute to making it more difficult,” said defender Andy O’Brien after practice on Thursday. Fellow defender and team captain Jay DeMerit gives some credence to raucous fans, crowds that in the style of soccer in European are livelier than in most sports. “If you go to a place like Portland, and you have 20,000 fans, sometimes that brings a different environment,” said DeMerit. “No one likes to come to our house when you have that many fans on your side.”
The sport in recent years where the home-road disparity is the smallest is hockey. The 16th best road record in the NHL this season, of 30 teams, was the New York Islanders at 21-18-2, a smidgen above .500. In 2011-12, the season before the lockout-truncated year, San Jose and Florida were the 15th and 16th road teams at 17-17-2.
In baseball, it’s close. Thirteen teams in 2013 won at least 40 games out of 81 at home, and the median road result was 39-42, a record posted by four teams. In football, the median in recent seasons has been 3-5.
Teams in basketball have a tougher time. The median road record in the NBA this season was 18-23, with 14 teams of 30 winning at least 20 of 41 home games. Last season, it was worse, a median of 16-25 and less than a third of teams, eight, with at least 20 wins on the road.
Soccer is similar. MLS teams play 17 matches on the road and last year four – barely a fifth of the league – won at least six games. Five teams managed six or more wins in 2012.
“Usually, when teams go on the road, their attitude is: try not to lose, play a little defensive,” said Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado. “But with us, we don’t want to change anything. We want to attack. We want to win games as much as we want to win at home.”