For Pete's Sake

Time to demand more on the road

Photo: Daniel Studio

There’s no place like home.

At least, it seems that way for the Philadelphia Union, who’ve been a completely different team within the friendly confines of Talen Energy Stadium so far this season. Sitting on 7-3-2 at home and 1-7-3 on the road, the Union have picked up only six of their 29 points away from home so far.

More discouraging than the poor road record, though, is the quality of the performances. The dynamic, creative, impregnable outfit that’s outscored opponents 10-1 in their last four home matches turns into a tentative, incompetent blob when setting foot on a different pitch.

It’s a bit baffling. Managers in MLS spout boilerplate about how difficult it is to play on the road. But think about it for a second — why should that be the case? After all, the pitch is the same size everywhere you play. Most teams have taken proactive steps to help with traveling long distances. Professional athletes should not be regularly affected by roaring away crowds.

You can see some data to back this thought up in our own Chris Sherman’s awesomely comprehensive analysis of home-field advantage. While his series isn’t complete, he hasn’t found that crowd size, traveling distance, or short rest account for the majority of the home-field advantage you see in MLS.

My theory, however, is simple.

Poor performances on the road are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shoot for the moon, because even if you miss…

The thought goes this way: Managers, afraid of playing on the road, tell their teams to go out, play conservatively, and aim to nick a point off their opposition.

Jim Curtin regularly speaks this way, at least to the press. He touches on how difficult it is to play on the road, how important it will be for the team to keep their defensive shape, how the goal is “a result” on the road. A result, of course, is not necessarily a win.

If you shoot for a draw, what’s the most likely result? If you drop deep from the opening kickoff, allow your opponents to play their game, and hope that you get a lucky bounce here or there, is it really a surprise that you only get one win in eleven tries?

If you play to win the game, things are different. You force the opposition to meet you head on, taking away some of the built-in advantage they expect just for showing up on their home pitch. Sure, maybe you lose. But it’s more likely that you get your draw, or that you even get all of the points.

Curtin, to his credit, seems to recognize that the road struggles are an issue of mentality. After the match on Saturday, I asked him why the Union couldn’t replicate their home form on the road. “We haven’t been brave on the road,” he replied, “we’ve kind of been reactive.” He discussed how that reactive play leads to Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya finding themselves “outside their comfort zone” on the road, disrupting the midfield duo that bossed the match against FC Dallas and leading to poor team shape.

It’s time for that road mentality to change.

No longer should the goal be just “a result.” Setting low expectations doesn’t make it easier to succeed — all it does is send the message that a low-quality performance is good enough. Besides, it’s too late in the season to be settling for a point here and a point there.

The Union, maddeningly inconsistent as they are, are capable of more than they’ve shown on the road so far.

It’s time for Jim Curtin to demand that sort of performance from them.

Some other thoughts after one of the more entertaining matches of the season…

  • Ilsinho is the Union’s best option at the No. 10 position right now. He’s always had the skills to play there, but it takes time (even for a veteran!) to figure out a new position. What’s clear after Saturday’s game is that, mentally, he’s got a handle on his decision-making — when to track back, when to take guys on, and when to look to play the pass. That enabled him to harass the hell out of Mauro Diaz and others, as well as produce spectacular moments like his no-look spin move backheel assist to Haris Medunjanin for the first goal. Obviously inconsistency has been the big problem but the Union’s best performances this year have come with him at the 10 and he deserves a string of games there now. It’s time to cut losses with the Roland Alberg Experience, let Ilsinho run the midfield while the team still pushes for the playoffs, and season in Adam Najem as appropriate.
  • Ray Gaddis had another off night on Saturday — the lone goal, late in the match, came when the right back fell asleep at the switch and let Michael Barrios get behind him way too easily. But Curtin doesn’t like to make changes when the team wins, and he even specifically called out Gaddis after the match as someone who played well. Don’t expect to see a change at that position this week.
  • The Union were ecstatic after the match with Video Assisted Refereeing taking a goal away from Maxi Urruti. John McCarthy even called VAR “my best friend right now.” Though the calls will even out over the long term, it was heartening to see how unobtrusive the system is. On Saturday, at least, it was nothing like the momentum-swallowing behemoth that is instant replay in the National Football League.

11 Comments

  1. All the fields are same size except when they are not.

    • I was just about to mention Yankee Stadium in regard to that comment.

      • I had on the NYRB / NYCFC game this weekend and that field size is so distracting. I realize part of it may be the angle used to film the game.

        It reminded me of my daughter playing beach soccer earlier in the weekend vs “full-sized” 9v9. Got to take a little off your corner kicks, but leave enough on to get it off the sand.

  2. “and he even specifically called out Gaddis after the match as someone who played well”

    That’s utterly ridiculous.

  3. Does anyone else get the feeling that after a three-game road trip, Coach would be happier with a D-D-L than with W-L-L?

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    I know I’ve harped on this before, but one of the reasons the road was so tough is scheduling inequity. Yes, the Union should have done better against Montreal (although missing Bedoya didn’t help). But the games in Columbus and New England were setup for the Union to fail. Not only were they on the road, but they were against teams significantly better rested. That may be one of the issues with road woes this season. Teams have to travel and be on shorter rest than their opponents.

  5. Time to demand more.

  6. Zizouisgod says:

    Why it’s hard to win or play well on the road is because the player’s routines are thrown off. They sleep in a different bed in a strange environment. They are away from loved ones and not in their home which is a much more comfortable place than being on the road. They have to travel long distances to get there which further stresses /disorients their mind and body.

    You can try to replicate all of those types of things, but it’s just not the same. And you might say that this is something that athletes can get used to over time and while that’s true, professional sports are decided by the finest of margins so every little bit helps. The best players are affected the least by this and typically, your role players perform better at home than on the road.

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