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Seattle Sounders: Qwest Field Doesn't Offer The Advantage One Might Expect

Despite the league's highest attendance and support from some of the loudest fans in MLS, the Seattle Sounders have historically underachieved at home.

SEATTLE - Head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC gestures during the game against Sporting Kansas City at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders defeated Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE - Head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC gestures during the game against Sporting Kansas City at Qwest Field in Seattle, Washington. The Sounders defeated Sporting Kansas City 1-0. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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In their first two-plus seasons as an MLS franchise, one of the hallmarks of the Seattle Sounders has been their rabid home support. The impressive tifo displays, volume of the supporters groups and average attendance nearly 40% higher than the second highest drawing team in the league have given Qwest a reputation as a very difficult place to play. A poll of MLS players by backed up this belief, with Seattle's crowd ranked No. 1 on a list of the league's toughest places to play. There's no reason to doubt that dealing with the Sounders rabid support is a difficult task for visiting players, but it hasn't been enough to make the Sounders a dominant team at home.

In fact, the Sounders haven't even been a good home team in their time in MLS; they've been slightly above average at best. In their first two seasons in MLS, the Sounders averaged 1.8 points per game (PPG) at home, against a league average of 1.73 in 2009 and 1.69 in 2010. That put Seattle 8th in home PPG in 2009 and 7th in 2010, despite finishing with the 4th highest point total in MLS in 2009 and 6th highest in 2010. To this point in the 2011 season, Seattle's 1.5 PPG at home has actually been below the league average of 1.6, currently 11th in MLS (though it's important to note that the sample size is too small to act as evidence of the Sounders being any worse at home so far this year, as well as the fact that the league average PPG has fallen significantly this season.)

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What's more, the Sounders were one of the better road teams in MLS each of their first two seasons; the Sounders ranked third in MLS in both 2009 and 2010 in terms of PPG away from home with 1.33 their first year and 1.4 their second. Home field advantage in MLS is worth roughly half a goal, and in a league that is parity driven that advantage is enormous. In 2009, the average difference between PPG at home and PPG away was .77; in 2010 it was .63. Seattle saw a gap of .47 PPG between home and away in 2009; in 2010 the gap was .23 PPG.. Had the Sounders home field advantage given them a league average boost in PPG at home, the Sounders would have picked up an extra 4-5 points in 2009, good enough for 51 overall and a Supporters Shield. The boost of 3-4 points they would have received in 2010 wouldn't have done anything nearly as dramatic, but it would have helped the Sounders avoid an LA Galaxy team that had twice beaten them decisively earlier in the year in the first round of the playoffs.

The sample sizes involved here are small enough that they shouldn't be taken as anything close to the gospel truth, but there's a clear trend: the Sounders are quite simply not as good a team at home as their talent level and performances away from Qwest might indicate they should be. There are a few plausible explanations for this, and there's likely a bit of truth in all of them, but if pressed to offer an opinion as to which is the greatest controllable factor, I'd offer this: the Sounders are a highly technical team, much moreso than other teams in MLS. While they've featured players with blazing speed in Steve Zakuani and Sanna Nyassi, Seattle has always been far more effective when controlling possession, relying on steady build up play and tactically-induced counter-attacking. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of team that's built to have its talents maximized by Qwest Field.

Artificial turf is not the inherent evil that it's often made out to be. It changes the nature of the game to some extent, with the tendency of the ball to travel further placing a greater emphasis on speed and, perhaps, increasing the effectiveness of the bunker-and-counter strategy often employed by visiting MLS sides. That's not so much of a problem for teams that play a deep defensive line and can keep the opposition honest with well-placed aerial attacks, but it's an issue for the Sounders, and increasingly so without Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White. The turf also causes the ball to move a bit less predictably -- and a bit more emphatically -- causing some havoc in the buildup when passes go in unexpected directions. 

There aren't a whole lot of easy solutions to this problem. It's unlikely that the Sounders will be playing on grass anytime soon, and though a replacement pitch more suited for soccer is a possibility, it also has to be able to stand up to having the Seahawks and Huskies (at least for a time) playing on it, as well. Turning the Sounders into a kick-and-rush favoring team of speed merchants isn't necessarily the best option either; this is a team that's never had a great deal of difficulty playing competitively at this level despite their somewhat underwhelming performances at home, and completely reinventing an MLS team is a long, frustrating process. If the Sounders were severely hamstrung by their home surface it might be one thing, but they're still an above-average home team. Just not as far above-average as perhaps one might expect.

While the effect of the turf is likely something greater than insignificant, it's also likely that random chance plays an equal or perhaps even great role. It's also a fair bet that the Sounders would be better served by continuing down the path on which they've started. Still, it's an issue. But it's not one that I will pretend to have the answers to, nor do I expect Sigi Schmid or the front office to come up with them. But it's something worth keeping in mind going forward, and it could be a lesson learned when the time comes to build the next core.

2009 MLS Home/Away PPG

Team Home PPG Home PPG Rank Away PPG Away PPG Rank
RSL 2.13 1 0.53 13
CBUS 2.07 2 1.20 4
HOU 2.00 3 1.20 5
CUSA 2.00 4 1.00 9
COL 1.93 5 1.20 6
TOR 1.87 6 0.73 11
FCD 1.87 7 0.73 12
SSFC 1.80 8 1.33 3
DC 1.73 9 0.93 10
NE 1.67 10 1.13 7
LAG 1.67 11 1.53 2
SJ 1.47 12 0.53 14
CHI 1.40 13 1.60 1
NY 1.27 14 0.13 15
KC 1.13 15 1.07 8
AVG 1.73   0.96

2010 MLS Home/Away PPG

Team Home PPG Home PPG Rank Away PPG Away PPG Rank
RSL 2.47 1 1.27 5
NY 2.13 2 1.27 6
CBUS 2.13 3 1.20 7
FCD 2.00 4 1.33 4
LAG 1.93 5 2.00 1
COL 1.93 6 1.13 8
SSFC 1.80 7 1.40 3
KC 1.60 8 1.00 10
TOR 1.60 9 0.73 13
NE 1.60 10 0.53 14
PHI 1.60 11 0.47 16
SJ 1.60 12 1.47 2
HOU 1.40 13 0.80 11
CUSA 1.33 14 0.53 15
CHI 1.27 15 1.13 9
DC 0.67 16 0.80 12
AVG 1.69   1.06

2011 MLS Home/Away PPG

Team Home PPG Home PPG Rank Away PPG Away PPG Rank
RSL 2.17 1 1.33 3
PHI 2.14 2 1.17 7
POR 2.14 3 0.33 17
LAG 2.00 4 1.67 1
FCD 1.89 5 1.33 4
NY 1.88 6 1.17 8
CBUS 1.88 7 1.17 9
HOU 1.75 8 0.57 15
NE 1.57 9 0.29 18
SJ 1.57 10 1.33 5
SSFC 1.50 11 1.25 6
COL 1.43 12 1.50 2
DC 1.29 13 1.17 10
TOR 1.22 14 0.50 16
CHI 1.17 15 0.88 13
CUSA 1.14 16 0.90 12
VAN 1.14 17 0.75 14
SKC 1.00 18 1.00 11
AVG 1.6   0.98