Thursday, March 28, 2013

Home-Nation Advantage

A huge factor in soccer is the location of a game. Simply by hearing where two teams are supposed to meet, you can tell a lot about what will transpire on the pitch. It's been shown that simply playing at home can result in somewhere between just over a third to just under half a goal a game. With soccer's low scores, that's often a tide-turner, significantly moreso than in the other four major North American sports. It's a reason that competitions often demand two-legged ties: one game in each team's house, total up the aggregate score, away goals count double.

It's something that nations worldwide have long known and use to maximum advantage. Mexico is famous for the home-field advantage they enjoy at the 105,000-seat Estadio Azteca, at high altitude, in Mexico City smog, and with hostile Mexican supporters right on top of the field. Bolivia lives and dies on the presence or absence of their even more extreme altitude, where even the greatest players are left struggling for breath high in the Andes, as Argentina most recently found out the hard way. In lower elevation, Lionel Messi and the gang would likely have romped to an easy victory. In La Paz, Messi was left vomiting as his teammates were putting on oxygen masks, and Bolivia kept them to a 1-1 draw. Northern nations rely on the cold. Tropical and desert nations rely on the heat. Many nations attempt to intimidate, with varying degrees of success. More established nations rely on the pressure brought on by an iconic stage- England's Wembley Stadium, Brazil's Maracana, Spain's Santiago Bernabeu.

And then you've got the United States.

The American national team has been slow in getting the home-field advantage thing down. They have it so not down that they've often been out-cheered on home soil by Mexico, by El Salvador, by Honduras, as they frequently have made the mistake of scheduling games in cities with large communities of the nationality of their opponent. Mexico, the United States' primary North American opponent, has been given some of the largest stadiums, but while the Rose Bowl is all well and good... it's in Los Angeles. There is a large Mexican community in Los Angeles, and Mexico itself isn't far away. Games in San Diego, Dallas and Houston aren't good ideas either. Slowly, the US has been learning its lesson and has gone from using the Rose Bowl as its go-to site for World Cup qualifiers against Mexico to using Columbus Crew Stadium in Ohio, a city with a much smaller Hispanic population, and has gotten much better results for it.

The idea, though, was well and truly driven home against Costa Rica.

Last Friday, beleaguered American coach Jurgen Klinsmann marched Costa Rica into Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. At home against Costa Rica, the United States has previously recorded:

*Wins in San Antonio, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Dallas, Palo Alto, Portland, Oakland, Kansas City, Pasadena, Miami, and Salt Lake City. The best result was a 3-0 win in Salt Lake City in June of 2005.
*Draws in Dallas, Columbus, and Washington DC.
*Losses in Chicago, Torrance (CA), Miami, Tampa, and Carson (CA). Miami gave the worst loss, a 2-0 defeat in 1990.

The first thing you take from this is to not host Costa Rica in Florida or the Los Angeles area. Costa Rica is hot and low-lying and that environment is more their speed. (The game in Torrance was a particularly big mistake, as Torrance was full of Costa Rican expatriates, and the game, a 1986 World Cup qualifier, was not only marketed to those same Costa Rican expats but had Costa Rican folk dancers as a halftime show. The loss, in hindsight, was not a surprise in the slightest.) The best result for the US came in the mountains of Utah, so sending Costa Rica to Colorado makes good sense. The added element, though, was that this was not June. This was March, when snow is still a strong possibility. Matches are scheduled before knowing what's in the forecast, but the day of the game, snow had found Commerce City. While some of the Costa Rican squad on that day came from clubs in Scandinavia, and forward Alvaro Saborio played for Real Salt Lake (though he had a bruised knee), about half of the team played domestically, leaving them completely unprepared for what turned out to be some four inches of snow on the ground by game's end. In the 55th minute, play was stopped to clear the lines. The US had already scored to go 1-0 up, and as the snow piled up, they dug in to bog down the game and preserve the win. (As an extra bit of knife-twisting, the US dressed in white. Camouflage. Costa Rica was dressed in more-visible red.)

During the stoppage, both teams had agreed to play on, but afterwards, Costa Rica lodged a protest ordering a rematch. FIFA denied the protest.

Four days later, the US entered Estadio Azteca and, as everyone expected, found themselves on the receiving end of a furious Mexican assault. As everyone did not expect, though, they somehow managed to hang on for a scoreless draw. It was a result that, despite Mexico clearly being the aggressor all night long, took Klinsmann well and truly off the hot seat... while in turn putting Mexican coach Manuel de la Torre on it. For Mexico is not supposed to draw at Estadio Azteca.

The lesson taken by American fans from the week has been that, whatever is done regarding America's injury-plagued squad, more should be done to maximize the United States' home-field advantage. The home-field advantage of the United States is that there is so much geographical diversity and such a wide selection of high-quality stadiums of every shape and size, surely far wider a selection than any other nation has available to them, that every opponent that treads American soil can be countered with their own personal worst nightmare. And it can be done without putting the United States out on away trips. Other nations, lacking as much diversity, can draw great strength from their home field, but away from that field, away from their familiar environment, they can quickly wilt.

It shouldn't be a worry the United States should have, because of the diversity of environments available, but it has been inflicted on them, many times before. The Americans are used to, and expect to play on, top-quality, well-kept fields. Most of their opponents in Central America and the Caribbean do not have the infrastructure to build such places, and the Americans are often left to play- or sometimes are deliberately marched into- shoddy, rocky mud pits where the ball is guaranteed to take an odd hop or bog down in a poorly-drained area sooner or later. The home team, knowing what parts of the field have what deficiencies, has the edge. The thing is, if that's an issue, the United States has plenty of shoddy, unkempt fields itself. Find one and train on it.

Now, I've said that in the Olympics, the point is not who wins or loses, but rather the simple fact of participating. We all gather as a planet for a few weeks, ideally set aside our differences, celebrate human athletic achievement and walk away two and a half weeks later with, whatever the medal count says, no single winner.

Soccer? The World Cup? Not so much. The Olympics goes out of its way to make sure everyone gets represented and hundreds upon hundreds of medals to hand out. The World Cup has qualifying rounds to knock out most of the participating countries and only one trophy. You're here to win. And while violence and racism is never cool, stoking national pride, and giving those other nations a healthy amount of uneasiness about stepping onto your field, is perfectly in-bounds. After all, nations are being pitted against each other, and while you want everyone to walk away friends, you want a home-field advantage too. Because they're sure as hell going to try to create one against you.

With some nations, violence is a particular concern. The former Yugoslavian nations are legendary for going far over the line against each other on a regular basis, especially in the midst of the breakup. But nobody expects Americans to riot over a soccer match, or engage in any real amount of racism. (At least not at a sporting event. Politically, more generally, regrettably a different story.) Soccer fans in the United States especially worry about these things. MLS, for all its growth, is still part of a relatively fragile infrastructure, and growing the sport means families- soccer moms and their kids- have to be able to go to a game and feel perfectly safe in doing so. And the more hardcore fans know it. If the moms and kids don't show up, the league will die, and then they themselves will no longer have a team. So while bodily harm is a concern in the likes of Eastern Europe, and black players often have to deal with monkey noises and thrown bananas, the United States- which can ultimately deal with losing in soccer, and where black athletes litter the athletic spectrum- does not and will not engage in such antics and cracks down hard on anyone who does.

So knowing the limits beyond which American soccer fans will not go, and finding those limits to be perfectly within acceptable parameters, you know here that you can do simple things to make life uncomfortable for a visiting opponent. There are the obvious geographical things, such as scheduling tropical nations to play in the mountains in snowy months. You can play smaller nations with players based in smaller leagues in intimidatingly large venues to induce the pressure of a huge stage. But matches against the likes of Mexico have shown that local demographics are also important to note. You need to keep opponents out of cities with large populations of their own national heritage. You can place certain nations in certain cities where there's a significant population of the community of a traditional rival.

For example, while playing Mexico in Los Angeles means lots of Mexican fans in the crowd, playing them in Miami offers far better odds. Miami, as you know, has a large Cuban community, and Fidel Castro has historically had friendly ties with Mexico, although those ties became frosty for a time after then-Mexican president Vicente Fox endorsed a United Nations resolution condemning Cuba's human-rights record in 2002... until Fox was term-limited out for Felipe Calderon, who returned to friendly relations with Cuba. Miami's Cuban population, naturally, is virulently anti-Castro, and if Mexico supports Castro, they will be anti-Mexico as well.

The United States has played Mexico in Florida once, in Fort Lauderdale in 1980 as a World Cup qualifier for Spain 1982, a weak period for the United States. It was America's only win of the qualifiers, a 2-0 victory, and one of only two losses for Mexico (who didn't qualify either). In the Estadio Azteca two weeks earlier, the United States had lost 5-1.

This can be repeated with any country. There are communities from every nation in the United States. Find which ones are rivals, put the opponent there, get the seats filled in the US's favor, and trust that having the reputation of American soccer on the line every time out will keep those fans from doing anything too crazy. When England comes calling, as their traditional rival is France, it probably makes sense to put them somewhere with a large Franco-American population. Foxboro, Massachusetts works well for that. In turn, France is best placed among an English-American population, and that's heaviest in Utah.

As for Mexico, you could go and put them in Arizona- they've had one game there in 2007, and the United States won 2-0- but the limit of how much intimidation one invokes comes up here. Due to Arizona's laws regarding stopping anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant and demanding to see their papers, and given that the Phoenix area- where any Arizona match is certain to take place- is sherriffed by Joe Arpaio, a man notorious for his department's habits of racial profiling, holding a game in Arizona goes against the earlier-stated racism principle. You can't send them there and sleep well that night.

Bristol, Tennessee, though? That's more like it.

Bristol Motor Speedway holds 160,000 people, way more than Estadio Azteca's 105,000. It can also be converted to a grass field, though it has never actually been done. As early as 1998, an idea was hatched by the speedway, upon finding out they could convert the infield to a football field, to try and lure Virginia Tech and Tennessee to play a game (Bristol sits on the Tennessee/Virginia border). It was attempted again in 2005. Accounts appear to differ on which of the two teams backed out, but the fact is someone did and the Bristol game never happened. The two ultimately met, but in Atlanta in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Bowl. Virginia Tech won 37-14.

But if you can host a football game, you can host a soccer game. While soccer pitches are wider than football fields, football sidelines are significantly wider, and that's where you make up the difference. When the United States bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the first thing they did was make a list of the stadiums they had that were suitable for soccer, and then cut from there until they had their official candidates. Bristol wasn't there, but odds are, nobody asked. 70 stadiums were, a fact in sharp contrast to when any other nation bids. When other nations bid, usually the cities are selected first, not the stadiums, and a significant number of the stadiums- often over half- must be built from scratch.

Naturally, it was all football stadiums. Every NFL stadium save Candlestick Park made the preliminary list. College stadiums used by Alabama, Arizona St., Arkansas, Auburn, BYU, Cal, Clemson, Florida, Florida St., Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, LSU, Michigan, Michigan St., Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio St., Oklahoma, Penn St., Rice, South Carolina, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, UAB, UCLA, USC, Utah, Virginia Tech, Washington, Wisconsin and Yale were included, as well as several bowl-game sites.

That is what you can do with Mexico. If the World Cup is on the line, it's worth seeing what happens when Mexico is sent to SEC country to play in a NASCAR racetrack- NASCAR, a hallmark of southern Americana- in front of a crowd one-and-a-half times the size of Estadio Azteca, and with a local combined Hispanic population (remember, Hispanic doesn't mean any specific nationality) coming in at 1.9%. Bristol, Virginia- technically they're separate but are basically the same town- comes in at 1.2%. (Columbus, Ohio, by comparison, is 5.6% combined Hispanic. Still not a large number, but a larger percentage and a larger raw number of people for Mexico to potentially draw to the game.) It's my wager that the area, normally skeptical of any nation that isn't the United States, is not going to be amused by a Mexican soccer team invading a racetrack. Really, they won't be amused by any soccer team invading a racetrack, but given the consolation prize of cheering on their nation, I would hope the difference is made up.

The big worry is, of course, can you fill the place. Empty seats are bad no matter where you go. This, you can ere are tricks you can use to put butts in the seats. You can drop ticket prices. You can make the atmosphere into that of a one-night-only event- as you're playing Mexico and the speedway is colloquially known as the 'Bristol Bullring', it's a short hop to call it the 'Battle in the Bullring'. For an extra kick, hire someone really popular to do a halftime concert, or a postgame concert. (In this case, the game is scheduled for September 10, and Taylor Swift, who can sell out arenas with ludicrous speed, has a gap in her currently-ongoing tour that day as she transitions from St. Paul, Minnesota on the 8th and Greensboro, North Carolina on the 12th. Also, she is from Tennessee. She seems a natural choice for that particular situation.) You know no matter what, nobody is going to cause any danger to the players. Besides what we've already outlined... who runs onto a racetrack?

...why do I tempt fate with questions like that?

Anyway. If you can fill the stadium, if you can pack 160,000 people in to create the largest possible home-field advantage, not only is Mexico going to be placed behind the eight ball, not only is soccer history going to be made, not only is the United States that much more likely to win... but Estadio Azteca isn't going to seem so big after that.

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