COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – Home teams were king in every opening leg of the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs, with the lower-seeded hosts outscoring the visitors by a combined seven goals to none last weekend.
The Colorado Rapids were on the wrong end of that trend against the LA Galaxy, but they hope that the trend of home team dominance continues as the series shifts to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Sunday (2 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, TSN5).
“What I saw at LA and in the other playoff games is that the home-field advantage becomes exponentially greater,” Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni told reporters at training this week. “Not only is the stadium full and you’re playing an away game, but that psychological pressure that visiting teams place on themselves, there’s a palpable advantage to the home team.”
At a mile above sea level, the Rapids’ home stadium provides a unique challenge as the highest-altitude venue in MLS. It’s part of the reason Colorado are the lone team in the league with an unblemished home record through the course of the regular season, one of only five teams in MLS history to accomplish the feat. As such, altitude and crowd noise are advantages that the Rapids hope to use to full effect on Sunday afternoon.
“The altitude will be a huge factor,” Mastroeni continued. “When LA scored that goal [in the first leg], there was that roar and it ripped right through you, so the 12th man becomes huge. It doesn’t matter if you’re LA, you feel like the visitor when you’re coming to this place.”
With the Galaxy’s roster peppered with veteran players, the travel and altitude could indeed be defining factors. At least that’s the claim of Rapids Designated Player Shkelzen Gashi, who’s experienced a similar adjustment himself throughout the course of his debut MLS season.
“You see that in all of the home games, teams get tired after one hour or 70 minutes,” Gashi said. “It’s not so easy to play here.”
The numbers support the notion that Colorado’s opponents tire down the stretch, at least from a defensive standpoint. The Rapids have scored 14 of their 20 goals at home in the second half, and 11 total in the final half-hour of games.
“Even if we’re at 60 minutes, 0-0, we won’t be panicking, because some of our best stuff comes in that last half-hour,” Rapids striker Kevin Doyle said. “We know no one likes coming here. Everyone will be talking about altitude, we know about altitude, and it gets into people’s heads.”
The Rapids have also benefit from the positive psychology of knowing that rallying from a 1-0 aggregate deficit is much more attainable than the 2-0 and 3-0 first-leg defeats suffered by NYCFC and FC Dallas, respectively.
“It’s not easy but the result was good, not like it was 3-0,” Gashi added. “It’s possible that we can win at home and score a goal.”
The Rapids hope Colorado's thin air helps them flip the script from last weekend, where the Galaxy benefited from a 55 percent advantage in possession.
“I think at home, we’ll do a better job of [dictating the flow], which will make them run more, and the altitude will kick in more, which will put us in a better position to win the game,” Mastroeni said. “All year long we’ve done our job to make this place a fortress and that will have a psychological advantage as well. It will be a completely different game.”