Sounders respect, but don't fear Rapids' mile-high altitude advantage

TUKWILA, Wash. – When MLS clubs visit the Colorado Rapids, they are greeted with a sign that reads “Welcome to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park/One Mile Above Sea Level.”

The sign is located directly across from the locker room the Seattle Sounders will occupy Sunday when they meet the Rapids in the deciding game of their MLS Western Conference Championship series (4 pm ET, ESPN, TSN2).

There’s almost no way to miss it. But just in case, Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni also has found ways to raise the topic this week.

“He’s trying to make something of it just because it … worked for him this year,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “But there’s been a bunch of articles written. Where was the altitude last year or the year before? He even mentioned it in [an MLS press conference Wednesday]: When your team’s winning at altitude, it becomes a bigger story.”

So, yes, the Sounders are aware the Rapids went 11-0-6 on their mile-high home pitch this season. But they also remember that the Rapids went 5-7-5 there in 2015, when the field wasn’t one foot lower.

What changed, the Sounders say, are the Rapids. And while the Sounders have voiced full respect to their opponent, they’ve been a bit more ambivalent about the effects of elevation. They don’t dismiss it as meaningless. But they don’t expect it to be decisive in determining which team advances to the MLS Cup.

“I think his valid point is, look, if his team plays well and they wear teams down, then teams get tired,” Schmetzer said. “I think that’s pretty good. But we could say the same things here. If we out-possess a team they’re going to get tired in the 60th and 70th minute as well. … But if you’re a conditioned athlete and you’re mentally strong, it’s there; but it’s a 2 percent difference. It’s not a massive difference.”

In their previous visit in April, the Sounders lost at Colorado, 3-1. But all-time, the Sounders are 5-3-1 there.

One trick the club learned along the way is to get in and out of that elevation as quickly as possible. That’s one reason the Sounders scheduled training at home Saturday before boarding a flight that will have them in Colorado about 21 hours before Sunday’s first kick.

Schmetzer cites studies showing that’s the best way to go. Skeptics are directed to forward Nelson Valdez, who vividly recalls a couple of Paraguay national team visits to La Paz, Bolivia, which is roughly 12,000 feet above sea level.

“Four years ago, we went in with the national team three weeks before for acclimatization,” Valdez said. “And for me I was like tired in the game [a 3-1 loss]. And then the last game last week it was just two hours before the game we landed there. I feel better, and I think we play also better [a 2-1 win]. If you go on [shorter] time, I think it’s better for us.”

Additional personal testament comes from goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra, who likes to spend his free time climbing mountains, including Washington state’s iconic Mount Rainier.

“I’ve spent a lot of time up high,” Dutra said. “I’ve done all the volcanoes and everything else. I’ve done stuff in France.”

As for soccer, Dutra’s conclusion is “it’s not a big thing.” Although, in addition to any impacts on stamina, he also notes that the ball can behave differently in thinner air.

“The ball flies a bit more,” Dutra said. “There’s less humidity as well, and I think humidity affects it as much as anything else. The ball flies a little bit farther, a little bit faster, definitely. For sure, I think it’s easier to get more pace behind it.”