What advantage does altitude really give Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer? Arguably quite a big one, actually. It isn’t the be all end all, and I should point out both sides are playing great football regardless, but there’s still an obvious advantage to be had in altitude.
Only 2 sides possess the clear advantage of altitude in MLS, with every other MLS stadium being a maximum 900ft apart in altitude – a distance not great enough to properly affect fit pro athletes.
Home advantage can mean everything in the MLS, and the disparity between some sides home and road records have been staggering over the years – one being the notably vast difference between New England and their hapless travels to their ever improving home form on an artificial surface, for example.
There’s also an obvious part to be played by large and loud home crowds when over 75% of MLS teams are at least several hundred miles from home during any given game, isolating teams in tough places like Portland, Seattle or Kansas City.
The added concern of altitude is one that most MLS sides have to deal with once a season, and this season, it’s a concern I’m saying someone will have to deal with during the MLS Cup final.
In Major League Soccer, the lowest laying stadiums are Philadelphia Union’s PPL Park at 9.673ft, and DC United’s RFK Stadium at 9.744ft. PPL Park is quite literally visibly just above sea level. The highest altitudes, and more specifically the focal point of this piece, are Dick’s Sporting Goods Park at 5228.808ft. It is home to the Colorado Rapids. Neighbouring rivals Real Salt Lake play in Rio Tinto Stadium, which boast an altitude of 4436.405ft.
23 and 22 games in to the season respectively, the Rapids and RSL occupy first and second place in the Western Conference. Of course, MLS fans will tell you there are many things to consider in an MLS season. Travel, weather, home support, all equally as important for periods of time, but is anything really as devastating as MLS altitude? No.
You can make a fair argument as to why Real Salt Lake may just be the best team in MLS this year, but that hasn’t been the case every year. There’s no way past the fact LA Galaxy were unstoppable last year, whilst Houston Dynamo held the most impressive home record, largely helped by the Texas weather.
Since the 30/07/2009 – exactly 4 years to this day – Real Salt Lake holds a home record of 46 wins 15 draws and 10 losses. They’ve only lost 14% of their 71 home games. In that time, LA Galaxy has lost 16, and so have NY Red Bulls. The Sounders have dropped 15 home games in that time in just 57 games.
Sporting KC have always provided teams with a tough test at home, and having played 1 less game than RSL since our sample date, have lost 16 games themselves. Granted, teams like LA Galaxy may have picked up a few more points than RSL in the time by virtue of less draws, but I’m more interested in what the thin air has done to team late in games over the years.
So, if RSL’s altitude has helped them so much in their success, surely the Rapids will have a record as good or better?
Since the same date we are using in 2009 – and the date could stretch further if we wanted, and you’d see similar trends, but I think this is a nice chunk of time to assess – the Rapids have picked up 34 wins 22 draws and 15 losses. The Rapids have played the exact same number of games as RSL (71).
So, since our sample date, the Rapids have lost fewer games than the next best contenders in Seattle, LA, NYRB and Sporting – who have again, lost 15, 16, 16 and 16 respectively. 3 of those sides have played fewer games at home during the time, whilst the Galaxy has only played a couple more by regularly extending their MLS season.
Colorado has picked up a result in 78.87% of their home games since our date exactly 4 years ago – a fact made more impressive by the Rapids regular absence from the playoffs, and sometimes even a failure to finish in the top half on some occasions, which shows it isn’t just as simple as they’re a strong overall team.
In this run RSL have picked up 153 points, and the Rapids have picked up 124 home points. But, what’s extra interesting about these runs? Goal times!
61% of Rapids goals over the last 4 years have come in the second half at home, even though their away goals time is close to 50% when it comes to scoring more goals in either half.
Interestingly, Real Salt Lake has scored 121 goals in their 71 game run. Again, 61% of Real Salt Lake’s goals have also come in the second half, and no team matches these percentages on a scale over this length of time where this many goals has been scored.
Moreover, no team has scored a higher percentage of their home goals in the last 15 minutes of games during this team.
Does all of this come down to the thin air wearing teams down earlier than normal? I think there’s no better example than watching a Colorado or Real Salt Lake game, where you often physically see the less conservative teams fade before your eyes once the 60th minute hits.
Can altitude play a part in MLS Cup? Of course it can. The Rapids and RSL are enjoying two of their best seasons to date, and I’ll put money on that one of these sides is in the MLS Cup final.