A simple word that evokes a variety of feelings, both good and bad.
It can be warm: a place of belonging, shelter from the storm; the comfort of. Such idealization is not always the case, however: broken, those without; the loss of.
That same dichotomy exists, in its own way, in sports.
Playing on the road can be difficult. Not only are the creature comforts of home unavailable and travel an issue, but large swathes of the audience are actively routing against – that can have its advantages as well, but more often than not, one would always prefer the crowd onside.
It can be quibbled about whether a team of true quality should be affected by these annoyances, but MLS in particular sees a rather strong inclination towards home advantage.
In the 208 matches of the 2016 season played thus far, the home team has won 107 – 51.4%. The visiting team has just 34 victories over that period – a measly, 16.3% - with draws filling in the remaining 67 matches – 32.2%.
There are two diverging ways of reading those figures: either one sees that the home side has an 83.6% chance of taking at least a point from the match, all but guaranteed. Or, that the visiting side denies them the pleasure of all three 48.5% of the time.
Regardless of which way one divines those tea leaves, that collecting points at home is required for success is obvious.
Consider the following: only one team with more than four losses at home (Sporting KC) is currently in a playoff position (a tenuous two-point lead on Portland, who have a game in hand and a five-point lead on San Jose, who have three to make up); only two teams with four-or-less wins at home hold a post-season spot (Toronto with four and New York City with three) – a figure that rises to five in the West; only one team in the league (NYC FC) have a better road record than a home one.
Now, of course, there are several factors that make such premature analysis flawed.
The imbalanced schedule, with its differences in number of games played and opponent. And so too does some data counter, for instance, that three teams with strong home records in the West (Portland, San Jose, and Seattle – seven, six, and five home wins, respectively) fall below the dividing line, pointing out that while home form matters, it cannot stand alone and must be matched with sufficient away performances (of the three in question, only one, Seattle, has won a single game on the road).
With that in mind, and the knowledge that for Toronto FC just fourteen games remain on the season, it seems silly to restate how important the next few months will be.
Sitting comfortably in the middle of the Eastern Conference – six points off the top and five points above losing a playoff spot – TFC are exactly where they should be based on their points-per-game average, implying that any games in hand, though nice, are not necessarily reasons for optimism.
The crux of the matter is that of those fourteen, due to the extend road-trip to start the season, nine will be played at the friendly-ish confines of BMO Field.
Home has been a mixed bag for the club this season, with all the positives and negatives that word entails.
They have lost just one of eight matches, conceding just seven goals throughout – four of which came in that garbage outlier against Vancouver. Yes, in the other seven matches, the club has allowed just three goals on their home pitch. Astonishing, given the lessons of history.
But, they have won just half of those matches – dropping, in those three draws, the six points that would have seen them tied for first in the conference with a pair of matches in hand. Perhaps, given NYC's outstanding road form a tie is reasonable, though the Kwadwo Poku goal was troubling, but draws with a pair of struggling sides in Columbus and Seattle, were underwhelming. Never mind the loss to Vancouver.
The point of this rambling is that while no game will ever define a season – it can be emblematic, but not definitive – how the next three proceed will be a good indication of where this club can find itself come October and the start of the playoffs.
On Sunday Toronto faces Columbus in the finale of the Trillium Cup, as discussed before trophies, no matter how meagre, can be energizing for a club – since winning the Voyageurs Cup TFC has lost one of their last five, despite all the injuries. Then come two more in quick succession with Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and New England the following Saturday.
Though the scheduling is less than ideal, all are eminently winnable matches – collectively the three opponents have four away wins, three of which belong to Salt Lake. And come the start of August one can expect that the players currently out injured will be starting to trickle back – with Michael Bradley set to be the first slowly rejoining training, no doubt providing a lift to a tired dressing room.
Circumstances, at times, have not gone Toronto's way this season: injury has bitten hard and home has not been as sweet – not to mention the swings of refereed fate, but still they are in position to make a statement, having suffered those slings with a certain grit and determination.
As Bradley himself is so fond of reminding, the most important game is the next one, then the one after that, then the one after that. One game at a time.
And with a spate of home games on the horizons, both near and far, the numbers may be tipped in Toronto's favour.
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