Winless on the road: Timbers two different teams at, away from Providence Park

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Portland has turned its home field into a fortress but the Timbers are winless in 14 MLS road matches this year. Richard Farley tries to figure out why:

To watch this season’s Portland Timbers is to see the Jekyll and Hyde cliché come to life. At home, the defending champions not only play up to that title but also the reputation of a team with a series of MLS-elite talents: striker Fanendo Adi, midfielders Diego Valeri and Darlington Nagbe, and center back Liam Ridgewell. On the road, however, Portland is one of the worst teams in Major League Soccer.

The numbers bear this out. Portland is the only MLS team yet to win away from home this season, and while its six points in 14 games isn’t the worst road record in the league (the 1-10-2 Fire take that honor), the Timbers’ disparity between home and road performance is the largest in the league. Twenty-nine games into the season, Portland has recorded 32 of its 38 points at home. The -26 difference is six worse than any other team in the league and would be the worst single-season disparity since the Timbers joined Major League Soccer in 2011.

They’re numbers that hint at a deep-seeded problem, something endemic to the team that pushes its results to extremes. Perhaps it’s the fast pitch and high-energy environment of Providence Park? Maybe it’s something in how the team prepares? Is it tactical? Is Caleb Porter missing a beat on the road, or maybe opponents just aren’t giving their all on the synthetic surface in Portland’s Goose Hollow?

If only it were that easy. Last season, Portland was only seven points worse on the road, the fourth-best mark in a league where teams averaged 14.94 fewer points away from home. The previous season, with the same coach and largely the same core, Portland was only the third team in the last five years to have a better record on the road than at home. That team’s plus-1 difference was only one point behind the 2011 Sounders for the best relative road performance in the Timbers’ MLS era.

As Portland impressed in Saturday’s first half against Real Salt Lake, I started bouncing theories off private-sector Timbers expert, Chris Rifer. The conundrum was too irresistible, yet we had no obvious answers. To the eye, it seemed the Timbers were far more aggressive at home. Does Diego Chara ever play this well on the road? Maybe the coach just has a more conservative, more draw-tolerant plan away from home?

If any of those theories were true, there’d be hints in the numbers. If it were aggression, you’d see clues in the number of tackles the team’s attempting, or perhaps its ability to force corners or risk and incur an offside whistle. There’s no major difference in those numbers, though. If it were something inherent to the coach, why was Porter so successful over the last two years? Perhaps the tactics have changed, but to the extent that they have, we should see that reflected somewhere in the numbers.

Digging into the numbers

Fortunately, you don’t have to dig deep into Portland’s home-road splits to find and obvious problem. Whereas the team’s defending sees a fairly modest decline on the road (from 1.43 goals allowed to 1.85), the attack falls off a cliff. At Providence Park, Portland is averaging 2.29 goals per game, the best home attack in Major League Soccer. Away from home, the Timbers are scoring 0.85 goals per game, with only Sporting Kansas City (0.64) having more trouble posting goals away from its home field.

The ordinal rankings alone say enough about the difference, but if we’re going to dig deeper into this problem and try to truly figure out where Portland’s game is changing, it helps to look at it another way.  In 2016, as a league, MLS’ non-Portland teams are scoring 44 percent fewer goals on the road than at home. If the Timbers were a normal team (obviously, not true) and their home form represented their true attacking level (likely not true), you’d expect Portland to have scored around 22 goals on the road this season. Instead, they have only 11.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

There's plenty of motivation at home. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)

Why have the Timbers scored 11 fewer? Within the numbers, the most glaring difference is in dead ball situations, one more than explains the divide. Per Opta, Portland has eight goals from set pieces this season, none on the road. Add in the five penalties the Timbers have converted at Providence Park (with none on the road), and you’ve more than made up the gap. The entire difference between where you’d expect Portland’s attack to perform and its current level comes down to dead-ball goals.

Those numbers are just symptoms, though. Scoring fewer goals isn’t in a cause. What’s leading to the team’s failure to win penalties and convert set pieces? Where, in the numbers, can we find that difference in play? Because if it’s not there, we have to consider that the Timbers’ home-road disparity is just freak randomness – an assumption we should be considering all along.

The second level

Thankfully, there’s some explanation for the set pieces, one that can be seen in the Timbers’ accuracy on corner kicks. At home, 48.2 percent of Portland corners are finding a target. On the road, that goes down to 21.8 percent, a difference that’s led to 1.69 fewer shots from set pieces when Portland hits the road. To put that in perspective, Timbers’ opponents are only seeing a 7.2 percent drop in success rate between home and road. They’re losing only 0.66 shots.

That’s a significant drop, but it should be noted that corner kicks and aerial chances from dead balls are notoriously inefficient. One analysis both notes the poor conversation rate (three percent) and the problems we have distinguishing the successful corners from the unsuccessful ones. A drop from 4.00 set piece shots per game (Timbers at home) to 2.31 is huge, but with low conversion rates, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re missing out on a lot of goals.

Still, the reminder about set pieces helps diagnose Portland. Dead balls are low-probability plays, meaning the Timbers’ eight goals at home may be just as telling as their lack of goals on the road. Even though the team is middle-of-the-MLS-pack in dead-ball scoring (tied for eighth in the league), it may be out-performing its potential at home. With a little more luck on the road, both the home and away numbers would likely be closer to their middle ground.

That only explains set pieces, though. What about the penalties? Spot kicks are such infrequent occurrences, a 5-0 gap could just be randomness. In previous years, Portland had been on the other side of this coin, with management often alluding to the lack of luck the Timbers’ got with penalty whistles. The numbers bore this out, but this season, Portland may be enjoying some new fortune.

Still, there is some evidence that officials are calling tighter games in Portland. If they are doing so, the Timbers may be at an advantage, given their familiarity with those circumstances. After all, where as they play 17 games a year at Providence Park, opponents only get one, maybe two chances to experience the potential differences.

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Something that supports the tight-whistle notion is the amount to time teams have played a man down. On the road, Portland has played 1170 minutes of 11-on-11 soccer. Nobody’s been red carded in regulation time. At home, however, there’s been 193 minutes of man-down soccer. Portland hasn’t been terribly aided when people are sent off, having spent 70 minutes with a man advantage. For 72 minutes, the Timbers been shorthanded (there’s been 51 minutes of 10-on-10 soccer). Still, the mere familiarity of playing with fewer men and being subjected to tighter whistles could help the home team.

Curiously, though, the tight whistles don’t translate to total fouls or cards. Timbers games have 10 percent more fouls away from Providence Park, while cards are 20 percent more common on the road. But if there’s truly a home field effect, it might be in Portland’s card disparity. Perhaps the Timbers’ familiarity with the environment at Providence explains why they’ve drawn only 13 cards at home while picking up 23 on the road?

There are various studies (here, here and here) that show referees may have a home-team bias across sports, hinting that favorable whistles are less about soccer’s unique dynamics than human psychology – the unconscious want to please the people screaming in your ears. The difference may also be explained by the dynamics of playing from ahead, something home teams have traditionally done more often. If you have the lead, you’re more likely to be subjected to aggressive, increasingly desperate play from your opponents. While that presents a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, it may explain why a playing-from-behind Portland, having led only 163 minutes all year on the road, is more apt to been booked away from home.

Going forward

Even if they’re not perfect, we have some explanations for why Portland’s posting a historic disparity between its home and road performance. Over the last five games of the season, odds are we’ll see the gap close a little. Portland’s unlikely to continue to out-perform its home goal expectancy by 10 goals just as its attack is unlikely to be so ineffective on the road. Even if the Timbers are a completely different team on the road, the history of, well, the world, says that difference is unlikely to be so extreme going forward.

Still, Portland has a long way to go to get back to its 2014 and 2015 self. Even during its best road stretch this season, a four-game unbeaten run between May 29 and July 10, the Timbers still weren’t scoring goals. Four draws against Chicago, Real Salt Lake, Colorado and the New York Red Bulls were fueled by a strong defense that allowed three goals to hold up.

Among the Timbers’ final five games, three are on the road. If Portland takes one point from those while sweeping Philadelphia and Colorado at home, it will finish the season on 45 points. While that may prove enough to lock down the conference’s sixth and final playoff spot, it would be the first time since 2012 a point total that low put a team in the Western Conference playoffs.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.