Monday, August 08, 2011

On home field advantage

Much was made, a few weeks back, of the decision to host all of Canada's round 2 World Cup qualifying matches at BMO Field in Toronto. The outrage from the rest of Canada (as much as that can be used to describe a story that only the most hardcore of soccer fans paid any attention to) was as predictable as the backbiting from the partisans living within the golden horseshoe. Reasons for staying in Toronto offered by defenders of the choice, and by head coach Stephen Hart, tended to focus on the logistical (travel considerations and pitch availability) as well as the desire to see the development of a pro-Canadian crowd.

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of watching the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers dismantle the Edmonton Eskimos in front of a loud and sold-out crowd at CanadInns Stadium. In the pointyball version of the sport, crowd support can offer a tangible tactical advantage: making noise while the home team is on defense can disrupt the communication of the visitors' offense, leading to delays, penalties, and confused plays. In soccer, however, any lift provided by the crowd is of a purely emotional nature.

While I agree it is imperative that Canada is supported by a loud and boisterous pro-Canada audience during the upcoming rounds of World Cup qualifying, it is worth looking at how important it is to defend points at one's home field. The axiom regularly trotted out is that in qualifying, you need to win your home matches and take what you can get on the road. The numbers would appear to bear that out. Consider the stats from the semifinal and hex rounds of qualifying for 2006 and 2010 in CONCACAF:

Competition W D L Winning %* Points %
CONCACAF 2010 41 11 12 64.06% 69.79%
CONCACAF 2006 34 13 19 51.52% 58.08%

* Winning percentage here refers to the percentage of matches won. Period. Points percentage tallies the percentage of points gained by the home team as a percentage of the theoretical maximum.

Particularly in qualifying for Germany 2010, the home team held an overwhelming advantage, and Canada's failure to defend home turf (we earned only 2 of a possible 9 home points) was our ultimate undoing.

These numbers deserve some context. Combining the semifinal and hex rounds of qualifying for 2006 and 2010, and comparing to some domestic pro leagues reveals the following:

Competition W D L Winning % Points %
CONCACAF WCQ 75 24 31 57.69% 63.85%
Eredivisie 2010-11 160 70 75 52.46% 60.11%
EPL 2010-11 179 111 90 47.11% 56.84%
MLS 2010 116 63 66 47.35% 55.92%
Bundesliga 2010-11 141 63 102 46.08% 52.94%

With data enough to provide statistical significance, we are able to conclude that home field advantage is stronger in CONCACAF qualifiers than in most other competitions.

It would be foolish, however, to ascribe this home dominance to intimidating home atmospheres. For one, of the other competitions the league with the most enthusiastic diehard support, Germany's Bundesliga, had the poorest home records of all. Second, it is easy to forget that only a handful of Latin American cauldrons offer intimidating crowds; the likes of Cuba, Jamaica, Suriname, USA, and especially Canada have typically offered fairly tepid home support.

A more likely factor is the competitive balance of the competition. The Bundesliga is famously even, with few obvious weak sisters and many wealthy teams. The MLS, with its salary cap, also crows about its parity. These numbers serve to debunk the myth, at least for the year 2010, that it's a tough league in which to win on the road. On the other hand, even the final two rounds of CONCACAF qualifying includes teams with a wide gulf of quality between them: Mexico and Suriname, USA and Cuba, etc.

The lesson here? Home field in World Cup qualifying provides inherent advantages besides vocal support, and if Canada squanders these the Brazil dream will be over soon enough.

Obviously Canadian supporters would do well to get out and support their team, and to that end, should start buying up tickets for the three home games in Toronto this fall.

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