The north stands at Providence Park were full more than 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday, the “Timbers Army” providing a liveliness to downtown Portland that wouldn’t cease until hours later. During pregame warmups, Sporting Kansas City wing Johnny Russell unleashed a shot that sailed over the goal, and the supporters section replied with a mocking cheer. Impossible to ignore it, Russell simply smiled.
The venue consistently comprises one of the loudest, most engaged fan bases in the league. It is regarded as such an unwelcoming stadium that after Sporting KC survived for a 0-0 draw in the opening leg of the Western Conference Finals, players were praising the result.
“You saw it. You heard it. It’s a hard place to play,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said. “They have some of the best fans in the league. But now we get to reverse that, and they have to play in front of our fans.”
This is the manner in which the sport has unfolded in the MLS iteration, and it’s why Sporting KC is a favorite — at least according to the Las Vegas oddsmakers — in the conclusion of the series Thursday.
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It’s playing at home.
In all of sports, playing at home is the desire — the proverbial home-field advantage. But nowhere in American sports is home field a more distinct advantage than in MLS.
In Major League Baseball, 47 percent of the league finished with a winning record on the road. In the NBA, that figure hovers around 33 percent. In the NFL, it’s at 34 percent this season.
But in MLS, only four of 23 teams (17 percent) had a winning record on the road this season, with Sporting KC one of them. That’s actually a significant improvement from 2017, when Toronto FC was the only team in the league to support a road record above .500.
So, yes, there was a reason behind the optimism inside the visiting locker room at Providence Park after a 0-0 tie. It put Sporting KC in an attractive scenario Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPN) to advance to MLS Cup.
Win on your home field, and you’re marching on to the final.
“The environment that our fans are bringing at home, I think it’s going to be electric,” goalkeeper Tim Melia said.
“We go home and have everything in our hands,” Besler said.
“At the beginning of the season, before any games started, if someone would have said to me, ‘Hey, you can play the last game of the season at home, and if you win, you have a chance to go to the final,’ I don’t think there’s anybody in the organization that wouldn’t have signed up for that,” coach Peter Vermes said.
Most of their predecessors have made the most of it. Eight of the past 10 teams in a similar position as Sporting KC — those who earned a road 0-0 tie in the first leg of the series — advanced with a victory at home in the second leg.
Sporting KC played all season to earn this advantage, securing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. It lost twice at Children’s Mercy Park along the way. It needs any kind of victory Thursday to advance to MLS Cup. A draw of 1-1 or higher after 90 minutes would put Portland through because it would have more road goals in the series. A scoreless draw would prompt extra time, and penalty kicks if the game remained tied after 120 minutes, to determine a winner.
“I think soccer is a unique sport when you compare it to other sports — in our country especially,” Vermes said. “It’s not easy to win away from home. I also think that players, when they are at home, play with a different type of intensity and confidence, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the fans are so into the game.”
The statistics certainly support that point, but it’s less obvious exactly what edge those fans provide. In football, a crowd can disrupt audibles and adjustments at the line of scrimmage, when players rely on hearing one another. In baseball, the home team is awarded the last word, the final at-bat. In basketball, crowds tend to make more noise when the opponent has the ball.
The advantage in soccer, players and coaches say, lies within a less assessable quality.
“If I had to guess, I’d guess teams have a lot of confidence when they play at home,” Besler said. “Confidence plays a big factor in how you approach the game and how you play.”
There are past examples that Sporting KC staffers point toward. A home comeback win against Vancouver in 2015, in which a boisterous crowd seemed to will Sporting KC back in the game. “It’s human nature to feed off that,” Vermes said.
And perhaps vice versa. While Vermes said his club enjoys playing in front of full stadiums away from home — the reason for its 8-6-3 record — the players are acutely aware of the source of the noise, who it supports and who it doesn’t. On Sunday, Besler said it took Sporting KC a quarter-hour to settle into the match, to withstand a flurry form Portland bolstered by the energy from the stands.
And sure enough, it was the initial 20 minutes in the Western Conference semifinals that propelled Sporting KC to a win against Real Salt Lake earlier this month.
But there’s a bit of fine print to all of this, and it can be found within the remaining 75 minutes of that Real Salt Lake match. The season is on the line for both Sporting KC and Portland on Thursday. The trends don’t always apply.
“Playing at home, it’s only an advantage if you use it, right?” Vermes said. “The playoffs can be different because every game takes on a life of its own. It’s a final. They’re going to bring their absolute best, whether it’s in their place or in ours.”