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Playing on the road: The intimidation factor

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Getting a result on the road is hard. It’s so hard that the phrase “getting a result” doesn’t even refer to winning but coming home with a draw.

So what makes playing away so difficult?

Our series continues with a look at the intimidation factor when playing on the road.

Playing on the road doesn’t just take its toll on the body. Players also need to be mentally tough to face the challenges of road games.

“There’s pressure with [playing on the road],” Union assistant coach Jim Curtin said. “There’s no human being that doesn’t get nervous. Guys act tough and say, ‘I don’t get nervous before games,’ but that’s a load of shit. Everyone’s nervous, everyone has their mechanisms to ease themselves through it.

“I can tell what our guys do,” Curtin continued. “I have a pretty good understanding of each of our individual guys and what their little quirky things that they might not even realize, but as a coach now, that’s what I watch for. And having gone through it, I was a guy who got very nervous before games because it’s important, you know? It’s your job and you’re playing for your teammates, you’re playing for your family, you’re playing for your city. It’s a lot of pressure that goes on.”

That pressure plays out in such a way that players can very quickly feel the negative mental consequences of a poor play, as opposing fans put their role as a 12th man into play.

“They want nothing more than for you to fail and fail in front of them, so they can make fun of you the whole 90 minutes and make your life hell,” Curtin said with a laugh. “And there’s no worse feeling too then when you’re on the field and you know you’re not having a good game on the road. When you’re that guy who’s made a mistake — an own goal, you got beat pretty badly by an attacker — it’s a small feeling. I was a defender so, you give up goals, and as a center back you’re a good part of all of the goals that go in, and it is a humbling, humbling experience. That’s why it’s so hard to win on the road, it really is. It’s so many of the little things.”

Since joining the league in 2001, Curtin has seen how the away atmosphere has become more intimidating in the league. In MLS 2.0, the difference is vast.

“We had good crowds in my day, but it was city to city,” Curtin said. “Certain cities you’d go to, and you’d know there’d only be four or five thousand people there. Now, every week you go on the road and you’re in for a fight, and you’re going to hear it from the fans. Gone are the days of the old empty stadium. I shouldn’t even say empty, gone are the days of the 80,000-seat stadium with 15 to 20,000 in it, which feels awful, you know? There’s no atmosphere when you’re playing the Galaxy in the Rose Bowl.

“It’s completely changed,” Curtin continued. “We would play in Kansas City but it was Arrowhead Stadium and there were maybe 5000 people there. You go to Kansas City now, and it’s one of the most intimidating places in the league. You go to Portland, it used to be just an old crappy baseball field when they were in the A-League, and now, again, it’s a scary environment. Seattle? Ridiculous.”

Similarly, PPL Park can become a difficult place for other MLS clubs to visit, with the Sons of Ben and other supporters groups leading the friendly abuse of visiting players.

“I don’t know if the record would support that but, just from the intimidation standpoint, the difficulties of playing on the road, the crowd is probably the most important one,” Curtin said. “I know we have created an environment, from talking to old friends who are coaches in the league now and old teammates that are playing — they hate coming to our field, which I love hearing. When we shake hands after the game, the first thing they say is, ‘Your fans are crazy,’ and the second thing is, ‘You are the most annoying team to play against.’ I love hearing that. I think it’s great.”

Some players thrive on the energy of a hostile crowd while others have a harder time. Curtin, who has seen this as a player and a coach, explained how this can be due to a variety of reasons. “For some guys — and this isn’t all guys — but for some guys it’s easier to play on the road. Maybe they have three kids, or maybe they have different things going on at home that are a distraction.

“There’s definitely guys on our team that are a lot better on the road then they are at home,” Curtin said. “And vice versa, there’s guys who feed off of the energy of the crowd and they need that to get them going. There’s other guys that, maybe they can’t handle that. It’s a balancing act.”

All of the obvious challenges of playing on the road are compounded by situations like the postponement in Colorado. The biggest challenges there weren’t on the physical side.

“Playing one day later is not optimal,” Union fitness coach Kevin Miller said, “but we know the players are ready to play, we know that they’re recovered, nutrition really doesn’t change. It’s probably a little bit more on the mental side than the physical side.”

Union defender Amobi Okugo said various small factors come into play. For example, he didn’t pack as many clothes as he thought he needed. But there’s also the issue of mental focus.

“We have a whole mindset,” Union defender Amobi Okugo said. “We’re getting ready to play. You have your food at a certain time depending on when the game is and then to hear the game is canceled — You just have to readjust your brain and get mentally focused.”

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