The day is finally (almost) upon us. You can smell the faint aroma of chip butty... or... eggplant parmigiano(?)... in the air. Bitchy is closing out her active offseason as a stand-in at Medieval Times, Scotty Newlands has just installed his brand new mirror at home to practice singing the national anthem into, and Kings in the North have just finished applying the last layer of white-out over the "127" on their tickets.
Believe it or not, we are but two days away from Toronto FC's home opener at BMO Field. That's right, this weekend TFC will finally enjoy home field advantage for the first time in 2015. Of course with home field advantage comes automatic superiority over opponents, an easy three points, and a guaranteed playoff spot. At least, that's what we're often made to believe. But does such a "home field advantage" really exist for Toronto? Is BMO Field the magical fortress that we'd like to believe it has been- or can be?
Let's start out by looking at what actually makes home field advantage an advantage. Some claim familiarity with a home pitch impacts the team's performance. Toronto FC, of course, train at their Downsview facility, which isn't even the same kind of turf as BMO Field. That being said, over the course of an entire season, the first team will undoubtedly become more comfortable with both the size of their pitch and the feel of BMO's... well... specific strand of Scott's Turf Builder (I suppose), providing the team a small advantage over their opposition.
A second factor that lends home sides an edge, particularly in MLS, is lack of travel. With visiting teams flying for as long as 5-6 hours from their hometown, sometimes to a significantly different altitude & climate, and staying in an unfamiliar hotel room for 3 or 4 nights, the home team is clearly at an advantage. Heading to your home stadium in your own car- or by TTC for those just drafted onto the team (or Andrea Lombardo), after enjoying a home-cooked meal and saying bye to your family/friends puts a player in an entirely different frame of mind and comfort zone than those who are visiting for a weekend. But is that increased comfort and enhanced morale enough to piece together a win on any given night?
The most impactful and significant factor that provides an advantage to a home team is of course the atmosphere at their stadium. The home crowd, with their volume and support, motivates the home team to perform, and can even intimidate the visitors into making mistakes. BMO Field has historically been known for its electric atmosphere. When TFC entered the league, all acknowledged that the club had some of the best fans in the league, and an unbeatable in-stadium atmosphere.
But that was in 2007. Fast forwarding four years... four long, playoffs-less years, to 2011, MLS polled some of its players to see which stadium, or more specifically which team's crowd, is the toughest to play against. BMO Field and the TFC faithful, astoundingly, were still ranked in the top tier that year, judged to be the third toughest crowd in MLS after Seattle and RSL. Jeff Larentowicz, then with the Colorado Rapids, was one of many players who ranked Toronto the #1 toughest, providing the following quote: "Toronto. They're so loud. They're always there. You always know at BMO that you're not only going up against the guys on the field, but also the energy they're getting from the crowd".
Of course, that was in 2011. Subsequent years saw small declines in attendance, and a correlating drop in fan enthusiasm and supporter engagement. Chants and cheers became more sarcastic than encouraging (I personally recall joining in a chant of "we're gonna win the league" when an opponent hit the post during the second half of a scoreless game).
But last season, in 2014, Toronto actually saw a jump back up in average attendance, of course largely due to TFC's big-name signings and over-the-top marketing campaign. But regardless of the impetus for this increased attendance, TFC saw the 2nd highest average crowd at matches in MLS last season. And with a big crowd generally comes more noise and a better atmosphere.
So BMO may or may not still be one of the most difficult stadiums to play in for visiting teams (it likely is). It also may or may not stay in the top tier of the league in terms of average attendance in 2015 (it likely will). And while the enthusiasm of a small portion of the club's hardcore fans may have dwindled in recent years, the team still does have some of the loudest and most enthusiastic supporters and supporters groups in all of MLS. But does this all actually translate to results?
Let's take a look at the historical data- how has TFC fared at home versus on the road? To simplify, we'll ignore factors like the impact of injuries/absences and relative difficulty of opponents. When we crunch the numbers, unsurprisingly, it is revealed that Toronto's home record has been significantly better than the team's away record over the years. In fact, looking at their record alone, not once has the team managed to record as many away wins as home wins.
|YEAR||(H) W||(H) D||(H) L||(A) W||(A) D||(A) L|
Astonishingly (as a bit of an aside), the team also never managed to record more than 3 wins away from home in a single season until 2014. Depressingly terrible. Now while we shouldn't read too much into the season-opening road trip TFC just concluded, it's interesting to note that based on a simple trend analysis, TFC is en route to 7 away wins this season. Bringing this all back to the theme of the team's performance at BMO, I also broke down TFC's points per game at home versus away for every season, as well as goals for and goals against per game both at home and away from 2007 until 2014:
|YEAR||Points/Game (home)||Points/Game (away)||GF/Game (home)||GF/Game (away)||GA/Game (home)||GA/Game (away)|
TFC has always accumulated more points per game at home than they've recorded away. Toronto FC has also only once scored less goals per game at home than they converted while visiting opponents. The biggest number that pops out to me, however, is the difference in goals against at BMO compared to goals conceded while away from home. On average, TFC concedes a full 0.8 goals less when they're playing at home.
Why would that be? One obvious reason would be that teams coming to BMO often play for a draw instead of a win, and are less aggressive on the attack. A second reason could actually revolve around TFC's strategy- generally the home team plays more aggressively and pushes further up the field, pinning the visitors in their own half.
While that could open Toronto up and make them more vulnerable to counter-attacking possibilities, I would also argue that TFC's defenders have historically been lacking in quality and positional awareness, and that TFC has fared better defending the occasional counter-attack than when they allow teams to have more possession and organize themselves offensively. Either way, these numbers suggest that calling BMO a "fortress" may, in fact, not be terribly inaccurate- the Reds tend to do very well defending their castle.
In summary, the numbers don't lie. On average, TFC records 1.38 points per game at home, and only 0.66 per game while away from home. The statistics clearly reveal that TFC has historically enjoyed home field advantage, exploiting their familiarity with the pitch and the fantastic atmosphere that TFC fans have created. With that in mind, let's contribute to the positive environment and get out to BMO Field to support the Reds on Sunday. And for those who can't make it, I'm sure you'll find contentment in your significantly cheaper beverages and the comfort of your own living room, knowing all the while that we'll be cheering extra loud for you.